An American Hero

My journey in creating “A Killer of Lions”, the only novel ever written about the Tuskegee Airmen, goes back over half a century and involves many twists and turns.   Projects like this go through different phases and generally end up far different than the original vision, this one was no different.  But one aspect that didn’t change is that the main character, Buddy Bowman, is largely based on Lt. Colonel Lee A.“Buddy” Archer, an Ace Pilot with the 302nd Fighter Squadron of the 332nd Fighter Group.

I first met Lee A. Archer, in September of 1952 who at the time was a Captain in the United States Air Force and Professor of Air Science at New York University.  He strode into my life and our classroom and took his place in front of a bunch of second year Air Force ROTC students dreaming of going off into the wild blue yonder.  Our instructor for Navigation and Air Tactics, stood silent for a time, probably wondering who would make it or drop out, before opening the proceedings.

All of us admiringly took in the decorations on his chest and the ‘wings’ of a ‘command’ pilot resting above them.  During the assessment process it was obvious this man was no ordinary officer, for his “command presence” captivated us as did his impressive demeanor.  His skin color meant nothing as we stood in awe of this Air Force pilot with combat experience, wings on his chest and a persona which exuded confidence and a solid sense of self.

In 1952 there were very few who were privy to the Tuskegee “experiment” that took place during World War II.  There was a prior Tuskegee ‘experiment’ that took place years earlier, in which indigent blacks or negroes were injected with the syphilis virus to see what the effect would be and if there was a cure.  But that “experiment” is a whole other story unto itself.

Back then, most people never heard of Tuskegeeand had no knowledge of either “experiment.”  Lee A. Archer was a product of the second of the Tuskegee ‘experiments’ and his story has to be told.

In 1940 President Franklin D. Roosevelt succumbed to the black or Negro press and asked Congress to authorize the establishment of an Army Air Corp Pursuit Squadron made up solely of Negroes.  Its purpose was supposedly to give Negroes an opportunity to fly and fight for their country.

Why a Pursuit Squadron?  Because a pursuit or fighter plane has a crew of only one and is therefore already segregated with no fear of racial mixing such as would be the case if the plane was a bomber which had crews of up to ten.  Later on four bomber squadrons were authorized that were to be manned solely by Negro pilots with Negro crews.  World War II came to an end before these squadrons could complete their training.  In any event, no one in high places expected this “experiment” to succeed.

An active Pursuit Squadron, the name was later changed to Fighter Squadron, consists of sixteen aircraft with perhaps as many as thirty two pilots and the accompanying ground support staff of up to three hundred or more.  The support personnel consisted of mechanics, armorers, doctors and dentists together with their assistants or nurses, radio operators, cooks, drivers and even grave diggers.

The first class of cadets commenced in 1941, prior to the entrance of the United States in World War II.  In April of 1942, of the thirteen original applicants, five completed the intensive training and graduated as pilots and 2nd Lieutenants in the Army Air Corp, all except ‘one.’

That ‘one’ was Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., who was already a 2nd Lieutenant, being a West Point graduate, class of 1936.  During his four years at the US Military Academy, no one ever spoke to him, except when he was given a direct order.  He had his own room and his own tent when in the field.  In West Point parlance, he was ‘silenced’.  His father, Brigadier General Benjamin O. Davis, Sr., who was the highest ranking Negro in the military at that time, knew what his son would be in for but was very proud of what he had achieved.

Since Lieutenant Davis was the senior officer in the newly activated 99th Pursuit Squadron, as well as a West Point graduate, he was made its commanding officer and promoted in rank to Captain.  Because of the racial discrimination and prejudice that was prevalent at that time, all of their training took place at the newly established Tuskegee Army Air Field, an adjunct to Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama, a segregated base in the middle of the Deep South.  The stories that you may have heard describing separate quarters and separate drinking fountains are all true.

Over the next few months, additional graduates brought the 99th up to full strength but they did not receive their orders to go overseas until April of 1943.  During that time all they could do was to train and continue training in their antiquated P-40’s until they were as proficient as could be.  By the time the 99th went overseas, Captain Davis was promoted to Lt. Col., as befitting the CO of a front line Fighter Squadron.

Upon arrival in North Africa, after a harrowing trans-Atlantic voyage, which included eluding German U-Boats, they debarked in Casablanca.  Their journey continued on to Oued N’ja where they would settle in at a former Nazi airfield.  For the next three weeks they received combat flying instruction, in class and in the air, under the tutelage of Lt. Col. Philip “Flip Corkin” Cochran and his staff of seasoned pilots.

Fully expecting, after their second graduation, to be sent to a forward area, they were instead temporarily assigned to the British Desert Air Force by Colonel Momyer who had sought all along to have the 99th disbanded and its pilots re-assigned to coastal patrol.  By the end of June the 99th was assigned to the 324th Fighter Group of the US Army Air Corp and given the job of escorting B-25’s to their targets in Sicily.  On July 2nd, the 99th scored its first victory, an FW-190, at the hands of Lt. Charles B. Hall.

To a fighter pilot the epitome of everything is the number of victories he can achieve.  Since their inception up until their first victory, the powers that be held nothing back in attempting to downplay the 99th, inferring that they were inexperienced and lacked the resoluteness required of fighter pilots.  During the time that they were assigned to all-white units they had to take off in opposite direction of the white pilots and could meet up only when in the air.  And they had not racked up the victories that are a measure of a fighter pilot.

Shortly thereafter, Lt. Col. Davis was sent back to the US to oversee the training of the 332nd Fighter Group, which consisted of the 100th, 301st and 302nd Fighter Squadrons.  The ‘experiment’ that was authorized in 1940 was indeed successful and was continuing to graduate more Negro pilots.

But the 99th was still relegated to the back areas and purposely kept out of harms way.  How then would they ever be able to get the necessary experience and achieve victories without ever being given the opportunity to get the experience that would give them the victories?

In January of 1944 the American troops that landed at Anzio, on the western shore of Italy, south of Rome, were being clobbered.  Their beachhead was in doubt and in order to reverse the situation, every available Air Corp unit in the Mediterranean was called in, including the 99th Fighter Squadron.  Flying outdated P-40L’s, the 99th formally entered battle on January 27th and during that week shot down a total seventeen German aircraft, had two probables and damaged four more.

Their success showed what they could do which would soon result in their being assigned as escort to the long range bombers.  Before those assignments would be conferred upon them, Lt. Col. Davis was promoted to full Colonel and returned to Italy with the newly activated 332nd Fighter Group.  What’s more, the 99th Fighter Squadron was made part of the 332nd which made that Fighter Group, which normally consists of only three squadrons, larger than all of the other Fighter Groups.  In order to be able to distinguish between the different Fighter Groups when in the air, their tails were of different colors.  For the 332nd, the color was red.  The battle seasoned veterans of the 99th initially looked upon their transfer to the 332nd as another form of segregation but under the capable leadership and inspiration of Col. Davis they were able to fully integrate to everyone’s satisfaction and become a formidable fighting unit.

They would soon get new aircraft to replace the ageing P-40’s, first the P-39 for a brief spell, followed by the P-47.  With the delivery of the P-51C they were finally ready for long range bomber escort.

At first, the bomber crews which were all-white, objected to their being escorted by negro pilots.  It was not until they realized that the pilots of the 332nd would not leave their side to go off in chase of a German fighter plane hoping for a victory that they began to request the 332nd as their escort.  Col. Davis always hammered away at his pilots that a bomber has a crew of ten and was therefore more valuable than a plane with a crew of only one.

With the transfer of the 332nd to the 15th Air Force long range bomber escort would be their primary assignment.  And with this new assignment they would get the P-51D, the best fighter aircraft of World War II bar none, except perhaps the ME-262 of the Luftwaffe, the first operational jet fighter that was 125 miles per hour faster than the P-51D.  Nevertheless, the 332nd was able to down three ME-262’s.  Their secret was being able to ambush them on takeoff or landing when the German jet fighter was as its weakest and totally vulnerable.

Until the end of the war their missions took them all over the European continent, including Berlin and the Ploesti oil fields in Romania.  Of the 992 pilots that graduated from Tuskegee, 450 went overseas to take part in over 15,000 sorties in over 1,500 missions.  They destroyed or damaged 136 enemy aircraft in aerial combat and destroyed or damaged 273 aircraft on the ground.

Of those pilots that were shot down, two dozen were captured and interned in Stalag Luft III and then Stalag 7-A where they remained until the end of hostilities.  Two others were shot down that were picked up by partisan groups, one by the Greek partisans and the other by the Yugoslav partisans where they fought alongside their rescuers until returned to their own units.

And let’s not forget their Honor Roll that lists some 123 deaths from combat or from training accidents from 1942 up until VE Day.

During the war the Tuskegee pilots did not suffer any discrimination from the enemy nor our allies.  It was entirely another matter when it came to our own forces.  And after their return to the US, it was still a condition of, “get to the back of the bus, boy.”

Lee A. “Buddy” Archer, who went on to serve his country in Viet Nam and retired after thirty years as a Lt. Col., was a pilot with 302nd Fighter Squadron which was part of the 332nd Fighter Group.

In 1974 there was an article in the paper that a documentary was planned about the black pilots of World War II and that Lee Archer, an executive with General Foods in White Plains, NY, was being interviewed for that project.

I wrote to him and after receiving a reply I called him whereupon we met at his office and had lunch in the company cafeteria.  In spite of all his achievements, his office was noticeably absent of any indication of who he was and what he accomplished, commenting that “all that stuff was of a prior life.”  That was the kind of man he was.  The people that were trying to make a documentary about the black pilots of the 332nd Fighter Group were referred to by Archer as “a bunch of turkeys.”

Following our visit I tried to locate a book, any book, about their exploits, but there were none to be found.  Gradually, over the next few years, there would be some textbooks or historical accounts of the Tuskegee Airmen, as they would become to be known, but no novels.  Histories are usually cut and dried.  I wanted to read a novel that included the human element about what they went through and had accomplished.  By 1984 there were still no novels written about the Tuskegee Airmen.  It was then that I decided to tackle the project and write one myself.

Over the next couple of years I was able to collect all of the published textbooks and historical accounts that dealt with the Tuskegee ‘experiment’ and was able to obtain from the Air Force six roles of the invaluable microfilmed records of the 99th Fighter Squadron and the 332nd Fighter Group.  All of this material provided more than enough information to write another textbook or historical account.  But I needed a story line so that I could tell their story.  It took me a total of ten years of research and almost another ten years to write A Killer of Lions, during which time my research never stopped.

During that period I had a number of meetings with Lee Archer, who always insisted on being called “Lee” and not “mister” or “Colonel.”  I showed him my initial outline which he approved of.  Over the next few years I shared with him the progress of my story and where it was taking us.  He in turn offered suggestions and shared with me certain of his own experiences, some of which ended up in “A Killer of Lions”.

Perhaps the most interesting of all his stories or anecdotes that he shared with me was the one denying his status as an ‘ace’.  An ‘ace’ is one who shoots down five or more of his enemy in aerial combat.  Lee A. “Buddy” Archer did claim to have shot down five German planes.  His story is that somehow the gun camera film of his last victory was lost or misplaced and so he was given credit for only four and one half victories.  In other words, he could not prove what he claimed.  When he complained to Col. Davis, he was told “let’s make the next one a clean one.”  Years later, during the Reagan administration, the missing gun camera film miraculously re-appeared and the Air Force was finally ready to confer upon him the coveted title of ‘ace.’  At that point in his life he pretty much had it with the Air Force and told them to ‘shove it’, even though it was his likeness that provided the inspiration for the commemorative statue honoring the Tuskegee pilots at the Air Force Academy at Colorado Springs, Colorado.

During our last meeting he asked me, “why are you doing this?,” to which I replied, “no one has ever written a story about what you guys did and put up with.  It’s a story that has to be told.”  Until my novel was ultimately published I was always fearful that someone would beat me to it.  But no one ever did.

In 1995 there was an HBO movie on the subject that had a paltry story line and contained so many technical inaccuracies such as the pilots flying the P-51D at a time two years before they would begin to roll off the assembly line.  But it was better than nothing.

In 2012 George Lucas finally came out with “Red Tails”, which Archer did clue me in on that Lucas was interested in the project.  One has to commend George Lucas for having the courage to put his money where his mouth is, namely 58 million of his money.  The major studios all passed on the subject, supposedly because they did not view it as a profitable venture.  Because of my knowledge on the subject I was interviewed on a few radio programs to offer my comments on “Red Tails.”  I have to be honest.   The Lucas version had as many technical inaccuracies as did the HBO version and the story line was somewhat hokey.  I did not say this on the air but I honestly believe that if Lucas used A Killer of Lions as the basis for his film he would have a major hit on his hands.

Lee A. Archer, Lt. Col., USAF, Retired, passed away in 2011 at age 90.  In January of 2009 he had the honor of witnessing the swearing in ceremony of president Obama.  Lee Archer was not a professional basketball, baseball or football player nor was he a music scene rapper.  He was an ‘ace’ fighter pilot and a true American Hero.

www.AKillerofLions.com

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