Back in the early 1940s, it was almost unfathomable for the collective imagination to conceive of African-American and female pilots, particularly lending their talents to the battle of World War II. And yet, at roughly the same time, programs were developed by the U.S. military that made that seeming improbability a reality.
Elder James H. Brown, one of the prestigious Tuskegee Airmen (the corps of African-American pilots who participated in World War II), and Jane Tedeschi, a former member of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) corps, are products of such programs. They challenged the popular stereotypes of the times that promoted the belief that neither black men nor women were fit to be pilots.
While their paths never crossed during the war, Tedeschi had always wanted to meet one of the brave Tuskegee Airmen, some of whom were stationed near the base where she served, and whose exploits she admired.
Tedeschi just recently got to do just that, bonding with Brown for the first time over their unique places in American history. I had the honor and privilege of interviewing them both about their amazing military careers.
A hero and a heroine meet
On May 17, through a partnership between the Brookdale senior living community where Tedeschi resides, and Wish of a Lifetime, an organization that fosters appreciation for seniors by fulfilling life-enriching requests, Jane got her decades-old wish. Sixty-eight years after the end of World War II, Jane, now 93, and Elder, 87, finally had the chance to connect. The result? Mutual appreciation and thanks.
Jane said that the meeting with Elder was “wonderful.” She discovered that the women who were in her ferry command, the group of pilots tasked to deliver planes, had delivered planes specifically to his group in Alabama.
“We had heard so much about the Tuskegee Airmen and I always respected what they did,” Tedeschi told theGrio. “Although I was stationed not far from them, in Salem, Alabama, pretty close to Mobile, I never had reason to land on their field, but I had heard about them from our pilot. I admired them for their flying capabilities and their fierce determination. They intended to fly and they did.” This is a determination she and Brown shared in the face of cultural opposition.
For Elder, their meeting was also an opportunity to reflect. “I always wondered who brought the airplanes to the base of operations. It was a pleasure and an honor to finally meet the people who did the job,” Brown said. “Jane brought up our trainer planes, the AT-60s, to Alabama. Those women didn’t get any credit for what they did.”
Through talking deeply on that day in Colorado, where Elder and Jane both live today, the details of their parallel paths emerged.
The makings of a WASP: Jane’s Story
Tedeschi’s love of airplanes began when she was about ten years old, after her grandmother took her to see the film Wings (1927). Despite the fact that her decision to learn to fly was not a popular choice for a young lady at that time, her mother, a college graduate and a suffragist, supported her “all the way.” In her early 20’s, Jane earned her pilot’s license.
In 1942, just as the country found itself with a deficit of pilots for the war effort, an experimental program was created to train women to fly military planes so male pilots could be released overseas for combat duty. In 1944, over 1000 women, who were civilian volunteers, graduated from the WASP training program. Jane Tedeschi was one of them.
These women tested planes and learned to fly all types of military aircraft, such as B-29 bombers, and ferried planes to both military bases and departure points all across the country.
“I was in the training command, so I got to do a lot of things,” Jane reminisced “We were required to do some acrobatics in order to see that the plane we were flying had been repaired. The men just had to fly straight and level, but not us! Here we were, women pilots, who they said couldn’t fly, yet we flew on a field that was still under construction, and all three elements of [our] training took place on the same field. The men never did that; they had a separate field for their training. And, we managed not to run into each other.”
Ignoring naysayers, becoming a female pilot
On the subject of naysayers, Jane quipped, “I never really worried too much if somebody thought I couldn’t fly, because I knew I could. I was already a pilot in civilian life, but they told me that they would teach me to fly ‘the army way,’ and I think it paid off a little bit.”
While the WASP group expected to become part of the military proper during their service, the program was canceled after just two years. It wasn’t granted military status until the 1970s. Jane last flew in 1945, then decided to dedicate time to her family; but, she is proud of her accomplishments.
“I just wanted to fly and I happened to be at a point in history when the world needed what I had to offer,” Tedeschi said. “And talk to any of us pilots. Almost everyone would have said that we just loved to fly.”
In 2009 the surviving members of the WASP program, about 300 at the time, were granted the Congressional Gold Medal by President Obama.
Flying while black: a Tuskegee Airman’s story
Elder James H. Brown, of Denver, Colorado, found early inspiration in Spanky Roberts, one of the first African-American military pilots and a member of the famous Tuskegee Airmen, who was accepted into the Army Air Corp in 1941.
“Spanky’s mother actually taught me in school, and I saw him when he came home after graduation. Maybe it was the uniform and all of the excitement, but the idea of what he was doing thrilled me,” Brown told theGrio. Before 1940, African-Americans were barred from flying for the U.S. military; thus, those early pilots were true role models.
At nineteen, Brown volunteered for the army. Elder began his training at the Tuskegee Field in Alabama in 1945.
The Tuskegee Airmen, originally referred to as the 332nd Fighter Group, were the first African-American pilots in the U.S. military. There were some 900 men in the program, and about 450 of the airmen flew missions overseas. Brown recounted bitterly that the training program was “a joke,” because the instructors did not want to teach black men. Not to be discouraged, Elder says he was a fast learner. “Explain it to me one time and then turn your back. I’m going do whatever it is you showed me,” he said.
“I cannot explain to you what a joy it was for me to be able to fly,” Brown continued, “because at that time they didn’t think that we could do it. Don’t tell me what I can’t do. I am going to try anyway and when I do, I’m going to do the best job I can. I proved them wrong.”