Columbus man recalls flying with Tuskegee Airmen

spauff@ledger-enquirer.comFebruary 26, 2012 

‘Red Tails,” a recent film by George Lucas, chronicles the struggles of the first group of black aviators in the U.S. military during World War II.

Luther Smith, 87, hasn’t seen “Red Tails” yet, but he has a good sense of what their WWII combat experience must have been like. He was flying alongside them.

“The Tuskegee Airmen, they were with us sometime or other on every mission,” Smith said recently from his Columbus home.

Smith served overseas from August 1944 to March 1945 as a navigator on a B-17 bomber. He sat in the nose of the plane, reading navigation instruments, giving instructions to the pilot and manning two 50-caliber machine guns on each side of the aircraft. The Tuskegee Airmen flew fighter coverage, going ahead of the bombers.

“They kept the Germans away. They shot down a lot of planes” he said. “(German pilots) saw those red tails coming and scooted off.”

Smith said even the men who survived the missions came back shaken.

“It was all kind of really scary,” he said. “Some of the guys would get off the planes and literally kiss the ground, they were so glad they made it.”

He never met up with any of the Tuskegee Airmen while stationed in Foggia, Italy -- they were too far apart and busy flying missions, he said. The fact that they were the first black Americans to fly for the U.S. military wasn’t something he thought much about, though the airmen were with his bomber group for many missions.

“We didn’t think anything about it. They were good pilots and so on,” he said. “They did their job and we did ours all the same.”

The black fighter pilots faced discrimination, but Smith said he didn’t think of them as being different. Growing up in Waycross, he said he’d played with black children and watched poor children of both races starve during the Great Depression.

“They were just black people. It didn’t mean that much to us. It was the same way with everybody,” he said.

He said he’s thought about going to go see “Red Tails,” but he walks with a cane and worries about navigating the theater in the dark.

He’s seen the 1995 HBO film, “The Tuskegee Airmen,” and proclaimed it “100 percent accurate.”

Luther will celebrate his 88th birthday in June, though he insists he doesn’t feel his age. On his hat, he wears a pin with the emblem for the 15th Air Force, the fighting force both he and the Tuskegee Airmen belonged to. To younger people, World War II may just be history lesson, but he walks around with the memories.

“I think they think about it as ancient history, but when I talk about it, I get the sweats,” he said. “My palms are wet. I get anxious.”

Sara Pauff, 706-320-4469

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