World War II Flying 'Ace' Salutes Racial Progress
By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Feb. 20, 2004 Decorated World War II aviator and "Ace" Lee Andrew Archer Jr., 84, says he dreamed of becoming a fighter pilot at an early age.
Retired Air Force Lt. Col. Lee Andrew Archer Jr., 84, (left) a decorated World War II aviator, holds aloft an ROTC coin presented by 19- year-old Howard University sophomore and ROTC Cadet Darold F. Ross during a National Black History Month commemoration ceremony at the Department of Veterans Affairs headquarters in Washington, D.C. Ross, a member of ROTC Detachment 130, wants to become a pilot, and said Archer's exploits, and those of the other Tuskegee Airmen, "paved the way -- directly -- for me." Photo by Gerry J. Gilmore
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
"I wanted to be a pilot," Archer said at a Feb. 19 National Black History Month commemoration ceremony at Veterans Affairs Department headquarters, noting that watching planes take off and land at a small airport near his family's summer home in Saratoga, N.Y., also whetted his desire to fly.
A self-described natural competitor, Archer said he pledged to himself back then that he, too, would one day battle America's enemies from the cockpit of a fighter plane.
The steely-eyed African-American eventually realized his goal: he became a member of the U.S. Army Air Corps' famed Tuskegee Airmen during World War II. During the 169 combat missions he flew in the European Theater, Archer was credited with downing five enemy aircraft, earning him the coveted title of "Ace."
Archer, the keynote speaker at the ceremony, noted that about 900 African- Americans were trained to be pilots at a military camp near Tuskegee College, later renamed Tuskegee University, in Alabama. Of these service members, he added, 450 saw combat, more than 60 were killed and 32 were shot down and became prisoners of war.
The Tuskegee Airmen, he said, flew a variety of combat missions in Europe, totaling 200, and destroyed about 500 enemy aircraft and a destroyer. And the Tuskegee Airmen never lost a bomber to the enemy during allied B-17 and B-24 bomber formation escort duties, Archer noted.
Archer said he was a sophomore at New York University in early 1941 when he decided to enlist in the Army Air Corps to become a pilot. At the time, however, the U.S. military didn't allow African-Americans to serve as pilots. And although he passed the preliminary pilot's test with flying colors, Archer was assigned to Camp Wheeler, Ga., as a communications specialist.
In 1942, the government decided to train a select group of African-American applicants for military flying duty a decision, Archer noted, that was rumored to have been precipitated by Eleanor Roosevelt, the wife of then- President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Archer said he reapplied for pilot's training and was accepted, earning his wings in 1943.
Yet, before and after they won their wings, Archer said he and the other Tuskegee Airmen had to endure the widespread racism that was prevalent across the U.S. armed forces before President Harry S. Truman's 1948 order that desegregated America's military.
Archer said that a mid-1920s U.S. War Department study was responsible for much of the shoddy treatment African-American service members experienced before Truman's desegregation edict. That study, he pointed out, essentially said African-Americans didn't have the intelligence or courage necessary for rigorous combat duties even though U.S. African-American combat troops had fought with documented courage and lan alongside French forces against the Germans during World War I.
So, although Archer was preeminently qualified to be a fighter pilot, his coffee-colored skin at first proved to be a hindrance to his dream.
However, Archer did become an Army Air Corps pilot, and flew P-40 Tomahawk, P- 39 Air Cobra, P-47 Thunderbolt, and P-51 Mustang fighters during World War II, earning the rarely awarded Distinguished Flying Cross among numerous other decorations.
The Army Air Corps became the U.S. Air Force in 1947, Archer said, noting he performed weather squadron hurricane hunting patrols after World War II and served during the Korean War. He retired as a lieutenant colonel with 29 years of service in 1970.
Archer left the service for continued success in the civilian realm as a corporate officer for firms such as General Foods, Phillip Morris and others, noting he'd also been involved in the start up of "Essence" magazine and other African-American-owned enterprises.
The "Tuskegee Experiment," Archer noted, proved that African-American pilots could fly and fight as well as their white counterparts and played a key role in Truman's decision to desegregate the U.S. military, which in turn opened up opportunities for all African-Americans.
"The country has changed, and it has changed a lot" with regard to race relations, Archer observed, in part because of the accomplishments of the Tuskegee Airmen and other African-American service members during World War II and of those who followed.
Yet, although race relations across the military and American society have greatly improved since the 1940s, Archer noted, they still aren't as good as they should be. But he added that today's generation of African-American military leaders will continue to build upon the successes of their predecessors.
"This country can be what it is supposed to be, and what it claims to be," Archer said. "It is in the hands of new troops now, and I want to wish them luck. I personally see the best for them and for their country, which is my country, too," he concluded.