Black History Month – What’s in a photo?

Tuskegee airmen. Capt Alva Temple (left), 1Lt. Henry T. Stewart (center), 1Lt. James Harvey (right). Photo provided

Tom Hildreth wrote the following history. Whenever I have an aviation question I always go to Tom. If he doesn’t know off the top of his head, he will look it up and get back to me.

Because of my interest in WWII history, I was aware of the ‘Red Tails.’ I thank Tom for bringing this to our attention. It makes me proud to be an American:


Many people have become familiar with the Tuskegee Airman through the movie of the same name that came out in 1995. This National Archives photo depicts three black Air Force fighter pilots, graduates of the Army Air Force flying school at Tuskegee, Ala. There were nearly a thousand pilots trained at Tuskegee, and most of them eventually served with the all-black 332nd Fighter Group, which began combat operations in Italy in February 1944.

The 332nd was quickly involved in combat missions against the Luftwaffe and German ground forces. The group converted from the nearly obsolete P-39 Airacobra to the P-51 Mustang in June 1944. At this point in the war, the dull camouflage of American combat aircraft was being replaced by bright colors that identified the units in the crowded European skies. The 332nd Fighter Group became known as the “Red Tails.” The group returned to the U.S. and was made inactive in October 1945.

Activated a second time on July 1, 1947, the 332nd was stationed at Lockbourne Air Force Base, near Columbus, Ohio, a combat unit of the newest American military service branch. On July 26, 1948, President Truman’s Executive Order 9981 directed the desegregation of the US military.

The Air Force would be the first of the service branches to desegregate. In 1949, Air Force leadership decided to conduct a gunnery contest for its fighter units that would test their proficiency.

Three pilots from each of the post-war fighter groups would participate in the meet, which took place at Frenchman Flats near Las Vegas, Nev. between May 2, 1949 and May 12, 1949. The men in this photo represented the 332nd Fighter Group. In fact, they won the competition in the propeller-driven category. Who were they?

Capt. Alva Temple, left, graduated from flight training at Tuskegee in July 1943. Temple flew 120 combat missions during WWII. He earned the Distinguished Flying Cross, which is awarded for “Heroism or extraordinary achievement while participating in aerial flight.” Temple was the team leader in 1949. After retiring from the Air Force, Temple opened a Gulf station in Columbus, Ohio. He went on to become prominent in statewide affairs. He passed away in 2004, leaving a legacy of community service.

1Lt. Harry T. Stewart, center. Stewart enlisted in the Army Air Force as an aviation cadet at 17. He graduated from Tuskegee Flight School, and went on to fly the P-40, P-47, and P-51. On April 1, 1945, Stewart shot down two German fighters, and in escaping the fire of a third, caused the enemy pilot to lose control and crash. He flew 43 combat missions during WWII.

1Lt. James Harvey, right. Drafted by the Army in April 1943, Harvey was accepted for flight training and graduated from Tuskegee as a 2Lt. in 1944. Harvey went on to a long career in the Air Force, retiring as a Lt. Colonel in 1965.

1Lt. Holbert L. Alexander, Alternate pilot at the gunnery meet (not seen in this cropped photo). Alexander remained in the Air Force flying fighters until he died in a crash at Chelmsford, Mass. on March 25, 1953.

The 332nd Fighter Group, winner in the propeller-driven category in the 1949 meet, was never properly recognized for their achievement. The following is an excerpt from an article written by Dave Kindy in the Jan. 26, 2022 Philadelphia Enquirer:

“However, their accomplishment would be lost to time – either accidentally or through intentional oversight – for seven decades. While the jet winners, the 4th Fighter Group, were listed in Air Force almanacs, the propeller winners of the first competition were listed as ‘unknown.’ That omission was corrected this month when a plaque naming the four Black pilots was installed at the U.S. Air Force Weapons School at Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas. It acknowledges their accomplishment of earning ‘Top Team Honors’ at the fighter gunnery meet in 1949.”

Tom Hildreth

USAF Enlisted Wing Historian – retired.


The February Chester Historical Society meeting is canceled.

This week’s old saying: “When you have a double standard, you have no standard.”



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