Nov. 14, 1944: On a mission deep over Germany, the 30-ton four-engine B-24 Liberator bomber “Tail Heavy” took a hit from deadly anti-aircraft fire. The lethal flak tore into the oxygen system that supported four of the eight crew members. The four airmen, including the pilot, passed out from lack of oxygen. Flying at 25,000 feet without oxygen meant death or assured brain damage.
Their lives and the fate of the bomber depended on the decision of a 20-year-old co-pilot named Jim Scheib.
Scheib didn’t have an abundance of options. He could remain in the formation of 27 other B-24s with their protective blanket of 270 combined machine guns, which meant certain death for his four crew members, or power dive from 25,000 to 15,000 feet to hopefully save the men but expose the Liberator to the loitering German fighters.
Scheib chose a power dive. At 15,000 feet, the four men groggily came back around, but now the formation was 2 miles above, and “Tail Heavy” was all alone. German fighters loved to pounce on weak and wounded Allied aircraft.
The flight engineer tapped Scheib on the shoulder and pointed out the window. There, on their wing, sat an escorting P-51 Mustang with a Red Tail – a Tuskegee Airman. A P-38 Lightning escort pulled up on their other wing. The two fighter pilots had left the big formation to escort the wounded bomber to safety. It was Scheib’s first encounter with the Red Tails, an encounter that most likely saved his life. His next meeting with the Red Tails would be much more personal.
Dec. 29, 1944: Scheib and a squadron of 18 B-24s had to abort a mission due to inclement weather. En route back to their base at Venosa, Italy, the bombers discovered their airstrip was covered in 5 inches of snow. The B-24s could not land under those conditions.
The heavy bombers were sectored to the Tuskegee base at Ramitelli, home of the Red Tails. Landing on an airstrip built for fighter planes along with their Red Tail escort, the lumbering B-24s came to a halt on an all-black, segregated air base. It was the first time during World War II that immediate integration of the races took place.
Stranded at Ramitelli for five days, 180 white B-24 airmen mingled with, slept with, ate with, and talked the talk of aviators with the Tuskegee Airmen.
No racism, no insults, no misunderstandings were reported. War, it seems, was an equal opportunity mediator. The aviators swapped tactics, war stories, and intelligence information, and drank beer.
The following is an article from “Bombs Away,” a restricted publication of the 485th Bombardment Group, dated Jan. 7, 1945:
“5-DAY VISIT WITH AN ALL-NEGRO FIGHTER GROUP!”
“A story of hospitality far beyond expectation was revealed this week when, coming back from a mission last Friday, several of our crews, having run into bad weather, were forced to land at the base of the 332nd All-Negro Fighter Group, the only one of its kind in this theater.
“For 5 days, according to Lt. Lurser of crew 178, ‘We were treated like kings. Every one of the men was wonderful to us, and the quartermaster immediately sent out to another field for food and five blankets apiece for us. We remained in the tents with the men, and sleeping quarters were ideal.’
“They insisted on serving us our breakfast in bed, and provided us with beer, PX rations (their own), Cokes, writing paper, and whiskey, and the New Year’s dinner they served us was out of this world.
“And when we left, we found in each plane a letter, which read in part, ‘You have been the guests of the 332nd All-Negro Fighter Group, and we hope our facilities, such as they are, were adequate to make your stay a pleasant one.
“On behalf of Col. Davis and the Command, we extend to you our most hearty wishes for a happy new year and many happy landings… . Remember, when you are up there and see the red-tailed Mustangs in the sky, they are your friends of the 332nd!’
“We only can hope that the men of the 332nd will realize how much we appreciate their kindness and thoughtfulness. We certainly won’t soon forget it!’”
The commanding officer of the 485th Bombardment Group wrote the Tuskegee Airmen a letter of appreciation:
“Dear Major Jones,
“On behalf of the officers and enlisted men of the 485th Bombardment Group, I want to personally thank you for the courtesy and assistance which you and your personnel so splendidly offered to our crews which landed at your base on 29 December 1944. I fully realize what an inconvenience this forced landing must have made on your facilities, and the remarkable manner in which you people of the 15th Fighter Command rose to the situation is all the more commendable.
“The very able assistance which your Service Squadron has given to the 332nd Fighter Group is well-known and now you have proven yourselves just as capable in servicing our heavy bombers.
Sincerely, Colonel Jack P. Tomhave.’”
The Red Tails were among the best; they had to be. Their dedication to a mission was legendary; their willing sacrifice known all too well. For a maximum effort, the Red Tails put 48 P-47 and P-51 Mustangs into the air to protect B-17s and B-24s on long-range missions over Yugoslavia, Austria, France, Romania, Germany, and Greece. During a two-day span in March 1945, the Red Tails downed 25 German fighters.
Included in their total victories were one German destroyer sunk in the Adriatic Sea near Trieste, 111 airplanes shot down in aerial combat, and another 140 enemy planes destroyed on the ground. Included in the totals were three Messerschmitt Me-262 jet fighters.
The Red Tails lost 66 pilots in action and more than 30 were captured.
“No one has been barred on account of his race from fighting or dying for America — there are no “white” or “colored” signs on the foxholes or graveyards of battle.” -- John F. Kennedy, 1963
Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran, columnist and freelance writer. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or aveteransstory.us.