HILL AIR FORCE BASE -- They were put in a position to fail. Instead, the Tuskegee Airmen turned out to be not only an important part of the history of the U.S. Air Force, but the history of the entire country.
Retired Air Force Lt. Col. James H. Harvey III, who graduated from flying school at Tuskegee Army Air Field in 1944 and later became the first African-American pilot to fly combat missions over Korean airspace, told his story Thursday to nearly 400 people at the Hill Aerospace Museum.
"Sometimes people tell me I sound bitter," said Harvey, 88. "But I just say the facts."
One of the biggest challenges the African-American fighter pilots had to overcome, Harvey said, was the list of stereotypes perpetuated in the War College Reports of 1936. Those stereotypes included childlike, careless, shiftless, irresponsible, secretive, superstitious, immoral and untruthful, and more than likely to be guilty of moral turpitude. The African-American soldier was also branded as a comic, emotionally unstable, "musically inclined with good rhythm" and "if fed, loyal and compliant."
Because of that report, Harvey said, military leaders did not have any faith in African-American pilots and tried to keep them out of the air.
"Our training was designed for our failure," Harvey said. "Instead, we became the best."
Harvey said the normal washout rates for white pilots in the early 1940s was 63 percent. In 1942, the first graduating class of Tuskegee pilots graduated with a 40 percent washout rate.
"They said something was wrong and made (the washout rate) 73 percent," Harvey said. "One guy had a spot on his trousers, so they washed him out."
In 1949, Harvey was one of three primary members of the 332nd Fighter Group Weapons Team, made up of Tuskegee Airmen, that competed in the inaugural USAF Weapons Meet at Las Vegas Air Force Base. The Air Force almanac did not list the winner of the 1949 competition. In fact, Harvey's team won, but was listed as "unknown" until 1995, when one of Harvey's teammates provided documentation of the results.
"They knew we won, they just didn't want us to be recognized," Harvey said.
The trophy was later found in the storage area of the Wright-Patterson AFB Museum and is now on display there.
Staff Sgt. Tchaikovsky Crosley, of the 75th Security Forces Squadron, worked hard to get Harvey to speak in Utah. He felt Harvey's message is an important one for everyone.
"You always hear about Dr. Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, but you don't hear stories like Col. Harvey's," Crosley said.
Crosley said he fell in love with the Tuskegee Airmen when he saw the first movie made about the airmen, which was produced in 1995. "Red Tails," a new movie about the group, was recently released in theaters.
"I never thought I'd have the chance to meet one of them," Crosley said. "They're living legends."