Photo by Heather Middleton
By Jason A. Smith
A piece of American history will be on display this weekend, as a pair of war heroes use their experiences to reach out to young people.
Wesley Chapel United Methodist Church, at 397 Racetrack Road in McDonough, will host a presentation by two Tuskegee Airmen, as part of a Black History month celebration, Saturday, at 1 p.m.
The event is being organized by retired U.S. Air Force pilot, Capt. Brian Settles. He said his achievements in the field of aviation would not have been possible without the accomplishments of the Tuskegee Airmen.
"My whole career stood on the shoulders of what the Tuskegee Airmen had accomplished," said Settles, 66, of McDonough. "But when they came back from the war, they were not greeted as heroes. It wasn't as bad as the returning Vietnam veterans, but they were not acknowledged until many years later for all the support missions they flew, protecting our American bombers from the German enemy fighters."
Settles flew 199 combat missions in Vietnam before becoming a commercial airline pilot.
He began learning, after the 1968 death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., about the Airmen, who flew for the U.S. during World War II. The captain hopes young people will learn valuable lessons, by hearing the Airmen's presentation.
"Frankly, many of us who have been fortunate enough to have great careers in aviation, ... are saddened by the number of African Americans that we see who have fallen through the cracks in the education system, and who are involved in problems with the law," Settles said. "This is just a presentation to show our young people, that many of the obstacles to them being successful have been removed. Pretty much, the only obstacle in our youths' way is themselves."
He added that the Airmen's involvement in the country's flight program during the war, was a source of controversy.
"There was a common perception in America that blacks were not smart enough, nor courageous enough, to fly airplanes like their white counterparts," Settles explained. "They were not allowed to go to schools where white pilots trained, so the Tuskegee program ... was an experimental program to see whether blacks could cut it in flight training, and could be trained to proficiency as combat pilots."
Val Archer, of Stockbridge, is one of the men scheduled to speak during the event at Wesley Chapel United Methodist.
He hopes individuals who hear his presentation develop an appreciation for the values of patriotism, responsibility and education. Archer said he took part in the Tuskegee Airmen program for four years, in a ground-maintenance squadron for military planes, before joining the U.S. Air Force.
"It took quite a team to maintain a plane, and keep it operational," said Archer, 81. "Our maintenance was a greater responsibility, because of the nature of our aircraft. These were fighter aircraft."
Archer said the Airmen had to cope with a social environment, during the war, which included segregation. He said elements of a segregated mindset were evident, when the country developed the Army Air Corps experiment.
"It was designed ... to show black people as inefficient, having no courage or discipline," said Archer. "They were certain that this experiment [would] show how incapable we really were.
"Fortunately, we had a sophisticated group of officers, most of whom were college graduates," he continued. "They instructed us of the importance of the experiment. We knew that if we failed, that would be the end of opportunities for blacks in aviation."
The experiment, Settles added, proved to be a successful one for the Airmen, who were sent into the war to protect bombers. However, members of the group still did not receive the respect they deserved after completing their military service.
"Not one American bomber that the Tuskegee Airmen escorted, was lost to enemy fire," said the retired captain. "They came back from the war, after having these great records of service, and their white counterparts went to work for Pan Am, TWA and Eastern, but the airlines would not hire black pilots."
Settles, a Torchbearer pilot for the Airmen, travels to different venues in an effort to educate the public about the group. He said the Tuskegee Airmen's contribution to the Civil Rights Movement should not be underestimated.
"They were pre-Rosa Parks," explained Settles. "They were pre-Martin Luther King. They were able, by distinguishing themselves, to establish in the minds of Americans that opportunities should be extended to African Americans."