Tuskegee Airman: “I Wanted to Fly.”

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By Eileen Hurst

(c) Connecticut Explored, Fall 2011

Connie Nappier vividly recalls the moment around 1927 when, as a small boy walking with his father on Wooster Street in Hartford, Connecticut, he saw his first airplane. He decided “right then I wanted to fly. Little did I know that a war would come along that would give me the opportunity to fly.”

As a teenager attending Weaver High School, Nappier closely followed the news regarding the struggle of African Americans to enlist in the Army Air Corps. Although African Americans had served in the military since the American Revolution, the belief that African Americans were not capable, either physically or mentally, of serving in the military persisted, fueled by several biased studies conducted after World War I.

With the approach of World War II, however, the black community relentlessly lobbied the War Department through black newspapers, labor organizations, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). A January 1941 lawsuit against the War Department brought by Yancey Williams, a Howard University graduate who had been rejected by the Army Air Corps and backed by the NAACP, was the final straw that forced the Air Corps to open to African Americans. On January 16, 1941, the 99th Pursuit Squadron (later re-designated the 99th Fighter Squadron) was activated, and in July 1941 the “Tuskegee Experiment,” later renamed the Tuskegee Experience, was inaugurated. The Tuskegee Institute in Alabama was selected as the site for the men to receive their primary instruction to become pilots.

Nappier, though still in high school, jumped at the opportunity to enlist in the Air Corps. He walked to the recruiting center at 555 Asylum Street in Hartford to take the written exam. He was confident that he’d aced the test but two weeks later received notification that he had failed. “I was determined to get a fair hearing,” he said, so he returned and convinced the recruiter to give him another test, which he again passed with flying colors. This time, he was allowed to enlist.

The next hurdle surfaced at Westover Air Base, where Nappier reported for his physical. The star athlete again was not worried because he was in peak physical condition. But, he says, the doctor examining him measured the distance between the pupils of his eyes and declared the young man a “freak” because they were farther apart than average. Nappier challenged the doctor, saying, “If my pupils are further apart than the norm, it means that my peripheral vision is greater and that makes me better suited as a flyer.” The physician replied with a chuckle, “I think you’re going to make it.” The Air Corps accepted Nappier after he graduated from high school.

In June 1943, the new high school graduate was accepted into the Tuskegee program and reported to Keesler Field in Biloxi, Mississippi for basic training. He was placed in a segregated unit, as he would be for every stage of his military service, and soon encountered deep racism. Nappier described an incident in which one of the cadets went into town alone and did not return. “They found him the next day on the road with his head bashed in,” Nappier recalled. With their hearts set on getting to Tuskegee, the pre-aviation cadets endured racism, discrimination, and mistreatment both from civilians and the military.

When Nappier arrived at the Tuskegee Institute at the end of 1943, he immediately sensed a different atmosphere. He soon realized the caliber of the men with whom he was training, recalling, “I felt like I was walking amongst giants.” One of the men his own age had already earned his master’s degree from MIT. Nappier enrolled in an accelerated college course at the College Training Detachment and completed his primary flight training at Moton Field. Unfortunately, Nappier’s class (class 44-45B) was reassigned and would become the first class of bombardiers and navigators. Nappier’s lifelong dream of becoming a pilot was put on hold. He was reassigned to Midland, Texas, where he qualified as a bombardier and navigator, receiving his wings on December 1, 1944.

After a short stint at Godman Field in Kentucky, Nappier and more than a hundred African-American officers were sent to Freedman Field in Indiana. Racial tensions there flared almost immediately over the airmen’s access to the two officers’ clubs, resulting in the house arrest of 101 African-American officers, including many, Nappier included, who had not been to the officers’ clubs. Facing possible court martial, not one of the 101 detained airmen agreed to sign a directive designating one club as whites only. Nappier recalls, “Well, we knew that, but the fellas said, ‘Well, if we can go overseas and die, we might as well die here for what we know is right.’”

Rather than prosecute, Colonel Robert Selway, the unit’s interim commander, placed a formal reprimand in each man’s service record. While in custody, the men learned of the death of President Theodore Roosevelt; Harry Truman was now president. To the surprise of Nappier and others, a rumor circulated alleging that when Truman, a southern white man, was apprised of the situation, he said, “Turn my boys a loose and let them do what they were trained to do.” The airmen were freed and swallowed the insult of having been called boys, but the reprimands remained in their files.         

That undeserved reprimand later caused problems for Nappier when he requested a transfer back to Tuskegee for pilot training. Selway denied the request, but it nonetheless made it up the chain of command, and Nappier received orders to report in July 1945 for pilot training. Nappier joined Class 46D and became a skilled pilot in both the PT-13D and the AT-6D. Nappier still recalls the feeling when he first flew solo: “When I got up there and I looked down, it was really a high point in my life at that point. Everything looked so clean, and the sun was shining. I forgot about the war. I really, really truly felt that the Maker has got to be somewhere close around here. Many things ran through my head. One was, ‘Well, Connie, you made it.’”

Nappier was not to savor the triumph for long. The war officially ended in September, before Connie had an opportunity to graduate, and the Air Corps immediately closed the Tuskegee program. Class 46C, the class just ahead of Nappier’s, became the last official class of the Tuskegee Experience.

Perhaps equally important as their military service was the Tuskegee Airmen’s role in paving the way for the desegregation of the military. The high caliber of hundreds of young airmen produced by the Tuskegee Experience and their unparalleled record of air superiority certainly dispelled any myths about the ability or the patriotism of African Americans. It was men such as Connie Nappier, Jr. who influenced President Truman to sign Executive Order 9981 in 1948 to integrate America’s military, years before Rosa Parks made her famous stand, or Martin Luther King, Jr. became the voice for civil rights. Nappier is proud of the part he played in improving the country for all African Americans. After the war, Connie went on to become a prominent architect.

In 1995 General R. Fogelman, chief of staff of the United States Air Force, officially pardoned the 101 officers, and 12 years later, the government finally recognized the Tuskegee Airmen for their contribution to World War II. President George W. Bush presented the airmen with the Congressional Gold Medal, the most prestigious medal Congress can bestow. Nappier was one of the airmen in attendance for the long overdue honor.

Note: This story is based on Eileen Hurst’s interviews with Connie Nappier, Jr., March 15, 2006 and February 26, 2010, archived in the Veteran’s History Project at Central Connecticut State University.

 

Eileen Hurst is director of the Veterans History Project (ccsu.edu/vhp) and associate director of the Center for Public Policy and Social Research at Central Connecticut State University.

 

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