A living lesson in history
Tuskegee Airman tells students about life in the '40s -- and as a prisoner of war
Foothill students could have watched a video or read about a chapter in American history. Instead, some 550 kids, along with some teachers and parents, got to hear about World War II and segregation from someone who lived it.
Retired Lt. Col. Alexander Jefferson was a member of the now-famous Tuskegee Airmen, a group of black fighter pilots who literally saved thousands of lives while escorting bombers to and from runs into Germany.
"Where do I start? Do I start out as a young black -- Negro -- back in 1940?"Jefferson asked the crowd.
"In 1940, World War II is going on… no blacks are flying for the Army Air Corps (the precursor to the U.S. Air Force). We raised all kinds of hell to get us to fly," he said.
Finally, after years of discrimination and segregation from the rest of the Army, Jefferson said Congress agreed to build a base in Tuskegee, Ala., to train blacks to fly.
"I had to be a college graduate. If you were white, you could be a high school dropout," he said, pointing to the man who broke the sound barrier, Chuck Yeager, as an example, although he added that Yeager "was a darn good pilot."
Jefferson, an 80-something former teacher, comes off as a grandfatherly figure. He peppered his language with mild oaths and said kids who don't know their history are "dumb-dumbs."
"If I were drafted, I'd go to the quartermasters: heavy, nasty, dirty work loading ships … and I'd make $21 a month," he said, explaining that at that time, cigarettes were a nickel a pack, eggs were a dime a dozen, and a new car sold for $700.
To fly for the Army, he said, not only did he have to go through college, but he had to be "super."
"During the war, there was only 1,000 blacks who actually flew for the Army Air Corps," Jefferson said. "Out of the 1,000, only 400 went across to Italy flying combat. We escorted B-17s. We flew top cover for the B-17s and B-24s that left Italy to bomb Berlin.
"I only had 18 missions. My 19th mission was a strafing run… We went in, flying at these radar stations and suddenly, boom! There was a hole in the canopy right above me and fire come up through the floor. The dog-garn shell had come right up through."
Flying at treetop level at 400 mph, Jefferson said he had to gain altitude before he could parachute from the plane.
"Bang! I'm in the trees. I go down and get some black bruises, fortunately, no broken bones. Ordinarily, they'd say if you go parachute and go down in southern France, you dig a hole, hide your parachute and get with the free French, the French Marquee (resistance fighters). I got to my knees and I looked up and a dog-garn German says, 'Yah.' I said, 'Oh, hell, you got me.'
"The German enlisted man noticed the gold bar on my collar that said 'lieutenant.' He saluted me," Jefferson said. "I know he was flabbergasted because of my skin color. … His eyes got big."
Jefferson was taken from Toulon, France, where he was shot down to Frankfurt, German, to be interrogated.
"I stood before a guy at a desk, the interrogator. He pulled out a big book," Jefferson said. "He opened it up and all of a sudden I saw all of the pictures ever made at Tuskegee. I recognized them, they were my former classmates. He come to a page and said, 'Lieutenant, isn't this you?' There's my class picture, my graduation picture (taken) at Tuskegee Air Field -- in Germany. All I could do is say, 'Yah.' He had my high school grades. I went to college at Clark College in Atlanta and he had all my grades … He even knew how much (in) taxes my father paid on his house."
Jefferson said this was a lesson in American history: While Japanese-Americans were forcibly removed from the West Coast and interred in concentration camps, nothing was done to prevent German-Americans from spying for their former country.
After his interrogation, Jefferson said, he was shipped to Stalag Luft 3, a prison camp for officers only. He said enlisted men were sent to different camps where they could be made to work.
"Why? Because of the Geneva Convention. You've heard of this," he said, bringing the issue current with a short aside about Guantanamo, where enemy combatants from Iraq and Afghanistan are being held.
"Google the Geneva Convention. Find out what you're supposed to do," he said. "You young people -- what are you going to do with these terrorists who were responsible for 9/11? You're going to have to answer this."
Returning to his personal experiences, Jefferson said that as the lone black man in a prison camp, he got little respect from the other officers being held.
"I could almost feel the racism," he said, but added that things changed when the crew of a bomber was brought to the camp. "They came and said, 'If you Red Tails (Jefferson's fighter squadron) had been with us, we wouldn't have been shot down.'"
Jefferson was freed after nine months when Allied forces took the camp. After hearing about Jewish concentration camps, he said he went to Dachau to see for himself.
"All of a sudden, there's this odor, this smell. It's something I'll never forget," he said. "The ovens were still warm."
To those who don't believe in the Holocaust, Jefferson says, "I've seen it, smelled the stench. They can't tell me it never happened."
Upon his return to the U.S., Jefferson found new levels of racism. An enlisted man in Ohio refused to salute him. A war hero and self-admitted nerd who majored in chemistry and biology, Jefferson was unable to get a job. Ultimately, he became a teacher, and that's something he's continuing to do.
No longer confined to a class, he and the remaining Tuskegee Airmen travel, lecturing students, telling them to remember the past and to embrace the future.
"Our job is to inspire young people to excel in science, math, the arts -- whatever," Jefferson said.