Tuskegee Airman Shares His Story of Serving With Distinction
(February 28, 2011)
James Sheppard speaks to a group
on Feb. 17, 2011 at Hanscom Air Force Base, Mass. Mr. Sheppard shared his experiences of being a crew chief and a Tuskegee Airman in the 100th Fighter Wing during World War II. U.S. Air Force photo
by Mark Wyatt
HANSCOM AIR FORCE BASE, Mass. (2/24/2011 - AFNS) --
During World War II, the U.S. military was racially
segregated, reflecting American society and law at
that time. An experiment in the Army Air Forces,
however, showed that given equal opportunity and
training, African-Americans could fly in, command
and support combat units as well as anyone.
James Sheppard was one of the men selected to be a
part of the experimental group that came to be known
as the Tuskegee Airmen. He was invited by the local
chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen Institute, with
support from the African American Heritage Month
committee, to share his story Feb. 17 here.
Mr. Sheppard was born in New York City in 1924. As a
boy, he said he always liked to see planes flying
"My father knew I was interested
in airplanes at a young age," Mr. Sheppard said.
"One time, a black civilian pilot came to the church
we attended, so I went to go meet him and hear him
speak. It was at that time I learned there were a
lot of black civilian pilots and had been for a long
Mr. Sheppard joined the Army Air
Forces in 1942 and became
an aviation mechanic. He was assigned to the 100th
Fighter Squadron, based at Tuskegee Army Air Field
in Tuskegee, Ala., where he eventually rose to the
rank of staff sergeant.
presentation, Mr. Sheppard spoke about his
experiences as a Tuskegee Airman.
joining the service he knew there were other
African-American civilian pilots flying as
mercenaries for other countries before the United
States entered World War II. He knew it was possible
for black people to succeed as pilots.
also described his experiences in Alabama.
"Mrs. Roosevelt, the president's wife, was a big
supporter of integrating blacks in the military.
When she visited (Tuskegee AAF), she asked if she
could fly with a black pilot," he said. "The
president ordered the military to create an
all-black fighter squadron. There were about 20 of
us at first, but it worked so well, they created an
The Tuskegee Airmen went
through intense training during their time in
Alabama. Before they could go overseas, Mr. Sheppard
explained how they had to pass a combat readiness
training assignment in Michigan.
Sheppard then shared information about and photos of
the many different planes he worked on throughout
"The P-39 (Airacobra) was a pretty
good plane," he said. "We were known for the red
paint scheme on the P-51 (Mustangs). That's how we
got the name 'red tails.'"
Mr. Sheppard also
described what life was like in Italy. Even during
war time, the men trained and went through
"Each morning, we would launch
48 P-51s between 7 and 8 in the morning," he said.
"The pilot had 18 seconds to get off the ground. If
he couldn't do it, we knew something was wrong with
The unit endured a lot of loss
during the war, as well.
experienced four D-Days before the actual D-Day took
place in France," Mr. Sheppard said, referring to
the invasion of Normandy. "By the fifth, the guys
were trained and knew what to do."
also took pride in making sure the bombers they were
escorting were able to accomplish the mission, but
it didn't come easy.
"The German pilots were
pretty good and they had good planes," he said. "We
were losing pilots fast."
Throughout the war,
more than 100 pilots were killed or missing in
action. Of those, more than 30 were prisoners of
war, according to reports.
But the losses
didn't deter the Tuskegee Airmen from accomplishing
the mission. They shot down 111 German planes and
damaged 25 while in the air. They also damaged 123
German planes that were grounded.
Sheppard explained how several Tuskegee Airmen even
sunk a German destroyer by firing the canons at the
"The Royal Navy said we sank it, but
the U.S. didn't give us credit for it," said Mr.
Sheppard. "I was part of a research team that worked
with people at Maxwell Air Force Base (in Alabama)
that helped prove we sunk that destroyer. We finally
got credit for it last September."
By Sarah Olaciregui|
66th Air Base Group Public Affairs
Air Force News
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