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Tuskegee Airman Bob Maxwell talks about his experiences as a member of the first group of black military pilots trained for combat during World War II. He was the keynote speaker Wednesday night at Misawa Air Base's Black History Month banquet.
Tuskegee Airman Bob Maxwell talks about his experiences as a member of the first group of black military pilots trained for combat during World War II. He was the keynote speaker Wednesday night at Misawa Air Base's Black History Month banquet. (Jennifer H. Svan / S&S)

MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan — Bob Maxwell never got the chance to fly a combat mission in World War II.

A member of the Tuskegee Airmen Class of 1945, he finished his B-25 bomber flight training in September, less than a month after Japan’s surrender ended the war.

But he was prepared for a different outcome, and more than 60 years later, that’s the heart of the message he delivers to airmen and youth wherever he’s invited to speak.

“We were prepared. We grabbed the ball and ran with it,” Maxwell said, quoting fellow Tuskegee Airman Daniel “Chappie” James, who would later become the Air Force’s first black four-star general.

Maxwell spoke to several hundred people Wednesday night at Misawa’s Black History Month banquet. Though well into his 80s, Maxwell continues to promote the legacy of the country’s first black military pilots who served in World War II. He’s president of the San Diego chapter of the nonprofit Tuskegee Airmen Inc. and didn’t hesitate to log another 13,000 miles at the invitation of the base’s Black History Month committee.

The banquet, on the last day of Black History Month, celebrated the accomplishments of black military aviators. Maxwell believes the Tuskegee pilots played a significant role in forcing the U.S. military to end its discriminatory policies, but he’s disappointed there aren’t more black fliers in commercial and military aviation today.

“There’s not enough out there,” he said, in an interview before the banquet. “I’d like to see more blacks in all fields of aviation because there’s lots of opportunities.”

As to why there aren’t more black pilots in the military, Maxwell said, “That’s a very good question and one that has us quite concerned. We don’t really know what the barrier is but it’s one of the things we try to encourage, if they’re (young people) interested at all in going into the military.”

Soft-spoken with a keen memory, Maxwell peppered his historical talk with stories about some of the more colorful Tuskegee characters.

“Chappie” James was one of them. At 6 feet 4 inches, 250 pounds, James needed a waiver to fly because he was considered too big to fit into the tiny P-39 cockpit. Maxwell remembers him saying, “I don’t get in the plane. I put it on.”

Recruited by the Army Air Corps, about 1,000 black pilots trained at Tuskegee Army Air Field at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama as part of a military experiment to see whether blacks were capable of flying in combat.

They flew 15,000 missions, shot down 400 enemy aircraft and never lost a bomber they escorted.

“The Tuskegee Airmen demonstrated beyond a doubt that blacks could perform as combat fighter pilots,” Maxwell said.

The Tuskegee Airmen will be honored as a group March 29 in Washington, D.C., with the Congressional Gold Medal.

About 300 people — from pilots to support personnel — who were part of the Tuskegee experience from 1941 to 1949 are still alive, Maxwell said. One gold medal will go to the Smithsonian Institution for display, while a bronze replica goes to everyone else, he added.

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Jennifer reports on the U.S. military from Kaiserslautern, Germany, where she writes about the Air Force, Army and DODEA schools. She’s had previous assignments for Stars and Stripes in Japan, reporting from Yokota and Misawa air bases. Before Stripes, she worked for daily newspapers in Wyoming and Colorado. She’s a graduate of the College of William and Mary in Virginia.
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