Tuskegee Airman, Pennsylvania native to make return visit to area
By BOB KALINOWSKI | The (Wilkes-Barre, Pa.) Citizens’ Voice | Published: April 30, 2019
WILKES-BARRE, Pa. (Tribune News Service) — As an African-American growing up in Luzerne County in the 1930s and 1940s, James Harvey says he never experienced racism until he was drafted into the military in 1943 during World War II.
During his first train ride, he was ordered to the segregated rear car with other black draftees. He later was told his dreams of being a military pilot were not possible because of his race.
But Harvey wouldn’t let the discrimination break him. Instead, he made history.
Harvey became a member of the elite all-black Tuskegee Airmen aviation unit and later became the first African-American fighter pilot to fly missions in the Korean War. He retired as a lieutenant colonel after 22 years of service.
Nearly 70 years since he last visited Luzerne County, Harvey, 95, will be treated to four days of local fanfare after he arrives in the area on Saturday from Denver, Colo. He was invited by the community group Mountain Top on The Move. Among the various events on his schedule is a speech he’ll give to Crestwood High School students next week.
“It feels good to come home. I haven’t been back since 1952, when I came to visit my folks. I’m looking forward to meeting the people, maybe some of the people I knew when I was growing up there. I’m 95, that’s why I say hopefully I can meet some people I knew,” Harvey said Monday in a phone call.
During the Great Depression, Harvey’s family moved from Montclair, N.J., to Wilkes-Barre in 1930. They lived on Orchard Street for six years prior to moving to Nuangola Station in Rice Township in 1936.
His was the lone African-American family in Mountain Top, but he said they weren’t treated differently from others in the community. Harvey was captain of the basketball team for Fairview High School. Classmates elected him senior class president and he earned the title of valedictorian of the Class of 1942.
“I had a good life in Mountain Top, Pa. I was treated like everybody else. I didn’t know anything about segregation or racism. I thought the world was A-OK, but when I went to the military, I found out differently,” Harvey said.
Upon getting drafted in the military, Harvey was assigned to the U.S. Army Air Corps — but not as a pilot. He reapplied for flight training and later was selected to be a part of an experimental aviation program — a segregated, all-black unit that trained in Tuskegee, Ala. The group became known as the Tuskegee Airmen.
The unit was designed to fail, as Army brass made it no secret they didn’t think African-Americans were smart or skilled enough to fly airplanes, Harvey said.
But it turns out the military relied heavily on the Tuskegee Airmen during World War II, using them to fly 15,000 missions.
Harvey graduated from flight school just as World War II was ending.
He was part of a Tuskegee Airmen team that won the Air Force’s first ever “Top Gun” weapons meet in 1949 in Las Vegas despite being given inferior aircraft and equipment. The honor was not officially recognized by the military until the 1990s and the trophy they won ended up in a warehouse for decades.
Harvey says the “Top Gun” win by the Tuskegee Airmen was the “last hurrah” of segregation and members of the unit were soon integrated with other American units throughout the world. He would go on to be the first black fighter pilot to serve in Korea, where he led nearly 130 missions.
At Crestwood, Harvey plans to talk about his battle over the adversity.
“The problems we had at Tuskegee, the problems we had as a race of people, why no one wanted us flying aircraft — they thought it was a waste of time and money. We were inferior to the white race. We were nothing,” Harvey said.
Harvey has a website honoring his service, tuskegeetopgun.com.
Katie Larsen-Lick, a board member with Mountain Top on The Move, said the group was honored Harvey accepted their invitation.
Harvey’s main request was that he get to speak to young people during his visit, she said.
“The fact we had a Tuskegee Airmen who lived here in his youth is remarkable,” Larsen-Lick said. “We are touched by the fact he wants to engage with the students. We are thrilled and honored, to say the least.”