The name Tuskegee stands tall in American history, especially among African Americans. It also looms large of the life of Wilbur G. Mason.
Mason, who now lives near Gaines Lake outside of Conyers, was born and raised in Tuskegee, Ala., the town 25 miles east of Montgomery where the U.S. Army trained the first squadron of black pilots during World War II. Mason said the training and exemplary service of the Tuskegee Airman in the 332nd Fighter Group in Europe helped set the stage for the civil rights movement that followed.
"I think the Tuskegee Experience was very critical to the Afro-American race," Mason said. "A lot of people who have accomplished good things would tell you that if not for the Tuskegee Airmen and groups that pursued the call of integration, we as a race would not be accepted as well as we are."
Mason has been involved with the Atlanta chapter of Tuskegee Airmen, Inc., a group that preserves the history of Tuskegee, for nearly 20 years. He said he uses gatherings he and other Tuskegee Airmen speak at to impress upon young people the liberating power of education.
Specifically, Mason said he wanted to reach young black people, who tend to have higher rates of dropping out of school and incarceration, by pointing to the Airmen as role models whose schooling and training changed the course of American history.
"We're trying to do something to help some of them to keep them from falling into this trap," he said.
On Wednesday, Mason spoke at a Black History Month assembly at Challenge Charter Academy in Covington, along with graduates of R. L. Cousins High School and astronaut Leland Melvin, who spoke via Skype from Washington D.C.
"The Tuskegee Airmen were a dedicated and concentrated group of people," Mason told the students. "They were determined that failure was not an option. They realized they were the first of their kind."
Mason started working on the Tuskegee Army Airfield selling gum and soda to the pilot cadets while he was still in high school. When he graduated in 1944, he got a full time civilian job on the base handling the inventory of airplane replacement parts. He worked there until the base closed in 1947.
Afterward, Mason enrolled in the Tuskegee Institute and studied industrial engineering, specializing in electrical work. He moved to Detroit in 1952, where he made a career as an electrician. When he retired in 1985, Mason moved to Atlanta, where he discovered a neighbor who also was a Tuskegee Airman and who encouraged him to join the Atlanta Tuskegee Airman, Inc. chapter.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940 ordered the creation of an all-black flying corps. A year later, qualified servicemen were trained at Tuskegee Institute, an African American teaching school in central Alabama founded by Booker T. Washington, under contract with the U.S. Army, according to the National Park Service history of the program. Pilots who completed their training at the institute trained at the Tuskegee Army Airfield.
In April 1943, the 99th Fighter Squadron from Tuskegee was deployed to North Africa for combat and soon was joined by the 100th, the 301st and the 302nd squadrons to form the 332nd Fighter Group.
The Airmen completed 15,000 sorties in approximately 1,500 missions, destroyed over 260 enemy aircraft, sank one enemy destroyer and demolished numerous enemy installations, according to the National Park Service. The Tuskegee Airmen were awarded numerous high honors, including Distinguished Flying Crosses, Legions of Merit, Silver Stars, Purple Hearts, the Croix de Guerre and the Red Star of Yugoslavia. A Distinguished Unit Citation was awarded to the 332nd Fighter Group for "outstanding performance and extraordinary heroism" in 1945.
Between 1941 and 1945, Tuskegee trained about 1,000 pilots for the war effort, according to the National Park Service. During its run until 1949, the program trained 994 African American pilots, about 450 of whom served in Europe.
At first, Mason said the Airmen were assigned to strafing and beach-clearing missions because the generals were skeptical of their ability. But as the war took its toll on the Army Air Force, a general approached Col. Benjamin O. Davis Jr., commander of the 332nd, about using the Airmen in combat missions.
Davis agreed and asked for better planes. The Army Air Force upgraded the group to P-51s and assigned them to escort bombers on sorties to Germany, Czechoslovakia and Romania. The Tuskegee Airmen performed so well, bomber pilots began asking specifically to be escorted by Red Tails, named so because their planes' tails were painted red.