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Red Tail fighter, WASP among living legends at Gathering of Eagles

By REBECCA BURYLO | Montgomery Advertiser, Ala. | Published: June 2, 2016

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (Tribune News Service) — Lt. Col. Leo Gray was among the first legendary Tuskegee Airmen pilots, famously known as “Red Tails,” to prove African-American fighters could fly — and fly well.

It has been 75 years since the Tuskegee Airmen became the first group of African-American fighters in the United States Army Air Corp, and earlier this year, several returned to Moton Field in Tuskegee where they first trained as pilots during World War II.

Gray shared how he became a Red Tail, a nickname given because of the red paint on his fighter’s tail-wing. His story was one of four told from WWII and the Vietnam War to the student officers of Air Command and Staff College on Wednesday, the second day of the 35th annual Gathering of Eagles at Maxwell Air Force Base.

Other legends of aviation, or Eagles, who spoke included Dawn Seymour, one of America’s first female military pilots during WWII, Lt. Gen. LeRoy Manor, who helped free prisoners of war from the Son Tay camp in Vietnam and Col. Leo Thorsness, who spent six years as a POW during the Vietnam War and was unable to attend the week’s events.

The day before, students heard from Col. Gail Halvorsen, the “Candy Bomber,” Lt. Col. Richard “Dick” Cole, one of the last surviving Doolittle Raiders, Col. Gaillard “Evil” Peck Jr., one of the original founders of Red Flag and Constant Peg and Marine Col. Dean Caswell.

The community had a chance to meet with all the Eagles on Wednesday night at the Aviator Bar where a reception was held in their honor.

Red Tails

Gray was among 16,000 other black men who signed up to fight with the Red Tails. Gray knew that they were fighting for their country, but he didn’t realize his service would eventually eliminate segregation in the military.

“We were just doing what we were supposed to do,” Gray said. “We were trying to become pilots in the United States Air Force with no thought at all of the historical significance that was taking place.”

At that time, African-Americans were deemed unfit both physically and mentally to fly something as complex as an aircraft. Gray and others who volunteered to fly in the 1940s, proved the myth wrong. In fact, the Tuskegee Airmen, were recognized for an excellent flying record.

“They said we couldn’t fly, but we thought we could,” Gray said. “Everyone else could fly. Everyone’s blood turns red.”

Gray was a single-engine pilot for the 332nd Fighter Group. After his graduation from the Tuskegee Army Air Field, he was sent to Ramitelli, Italy, as a combat fighter in the P-51 Mustang. He completed 15 combat missions over German-occupied territory escorting B-24 and B-17 bombers.

After logging 750 flying hours, he left the service in 1946 and served in the Air Force Reserves until 1984 and served a total of 41 years. Those years in the service were the most memorable of his life, Gray said. He appreciates the camaraderie he still has with fellow veterans who bonded during service.

Gray uses the Tuskegee Airmen’s story of “overcoming adversity,” to encourage young officers at ACSC to apply themselves when they are faced with obstacles in their careers.

Women Airforce Service Pilot

Dawn Seymour grew up in Pittsburgh, N.Y., with a desire to be challenged. Becoming a WASP fit the bill perfectly. She knew the minute she took off in a yellow Piper Cub training craft and saw the sky above her that flying was in her blood.

She spoke with passion to the class at ACSC about her time as one of the first female military pilots in WWII as part of the Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASP. It is a contribution to the war effort that Seymour, 99, is very proud of.

“I think we made a contribution flying over 60 million miles delivering aircraft,” Seymour said. “The girls delivered almost all the P-47s to Newark, N.J., where they were shipped over to the European theatre.”

One of her happiest moments was earning her wings and she “held the cold medal pin in her hands.” She then served as a B-17 pilot and trained gunners for the D-Day invasion and missions in the Pacific. She flew 700 hours in the B-17 to transport them out of Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas, which freed up male pilots for combat service.

The WASPs were only in service for a short time and were never granted militarization. Decades later, in 2010, Seymour and the other remaining WASPs were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, one of the country’s highest honors. That moment was just as exciting for Seymour as when she earned her wings.

“It was a deep satisfaction,” Seymour said. “Congress finally recognized our service and that was warming to the heart.”

Over 25,000 women applied to the pioneering WASP auxiliary, however, only 1,074 were accepted. Thirty-eight women lost their lives in flight and training accidents. They were granted veteran status in 1977.

Son Tay Raid

Lt. Gen. LeRoy Manor served both in WWII and the Vietnam War and is most famous for commanding the secret-mission of Operation Ivory Coast and Kingpin to free 61 American prisoners of war from a prison camp near Son Tay in North Vietnam in 1970.

Manor, 95, was in charge of the Joint Contingency Task Group that executed the mission. However, when the team arrived under the cover of darkness and traveling nearly 400 miles into enemy territory, they discovered the POWs had been moved by the North Vietnamese.

Yet, the real mission of the raid was a success. Manor had sent the message to other American prisoners that “they were not forgotten.”

“One of the main reasons why we did this was to let all of the POWs know that their country had not forgotten them,” Manor said. “There were over 500 POWs being held by the North — some as long as six years. They had no way of knowing.

“The idea was to give them hope, and I’ve had POWs come up to me years later and told me that the raid helped their morale because word got around.”

Manor’s operational standards preparing for that raid form the basis of modern Joint Special Operations Task Forces today.

Prisoner of War

Thorsness, who was not able to attend the Gathering of Eagles program this week was still honored during the program.

A Medal of Honor recipient, Thorsness spent six years as a prisoner of war in the Vietnam War until he was rescued and returned home in 1973.

Before his capture, he was a combat veteran and a F-105F fighter pilot who deployed with the 357th Tactical Flying Squadron at Takhli Air Base, Thailand. He was a founding father of the “Wild Weasel,” code name for an aircraft equipped with radar-seeking missiles and flew 92 Weasel missions over Vietnam.

In April 1967, Thorsness and his wingman were on a mission to attack several surface-to-air missile sites. During the attack, his wingman was shot down and Thorsness circled them from above to provide cover as they parachuted down.

Although running low on fuel, Thorsness remained with his team to ward off Soviet MIG fighters in the area. Two weeks later, he was shot down on his 93rd mission and spent six years in captivity in North Vietnam.

He spent a year in solitary confinement and tortured until his release in March 1973.

©2016 the Montgomery Advertiser (Montgomery, Ala.)
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