Tuskegee Airmen

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They played a critical role in integrating the U.S. military and advancing the American civil rights movement. Meet original Tuskegee Airmen Bob Ashby and Asa Herring, and “second generation” Tuskegee Airman Dick Toliver.

Ted Simons: Good evening, and welcome to "Arizona Horizon" on this holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I'm Ted Simons.

Ted Simons: During World War II African-American fighter pilots known as "Red Tails" for the markings on their P-51 mustangs protected all bide bombers from German fighters during critical missions over Europe. The heroism and success of these pilots who are trained at Tuskegee army airfield in Alabama played a critical role in desegregating the U.S. military and advancing the American civil rights movement. Here is a look at a film opening this weekend that tells part of their story.


Ted Simons: Joining me now are members of Arizona's Archer-Ragsdale chapter of the Tuskegee airmen. Lieutenant Colonel Bob Ashby, an original Tuskegee airman and the first black captain to fly for Frontier Airlines. Lieutenant Colonel Asa Herring, an original Tuskegee airman and retired U.S. Air Force fighter pilot. And Colonel Richard Toliver, a 26-year veteran of the U.S. Air Force, he was a top gunfighter pilot who was taught and mentored by original Tuskegee airmen, which is why he and many of his peers consider themselves second generation Tuskegee airmen. Is it a pleasure and an honor having you here on "Arizona Horizon."Thank you so much for being here.

Bob Ashby: Thank you.

Asa Herring: Thank you.

Richard Toliver: Thank you very much.

Ted Simons: I'm guessing you haven't seen the film as yet, but from what you've seen, Bob, does it ring true?

Bob Ashby: Yes. The aerial fighting and all that, with digital things that we have nowadays, they can really create the atmosphere and everything back then. But I haven't really seen the story, and that's what I'm concerned about, is the story matching the fighting of the guys in the airplanes.

Ted Simons: What are your concerns?

Bob Ashby: Well, I'm hoping they would come out with a valid story instead of something just based on a Hollywood type thing. And hopefully we can get something which has some meat to it. So people can realize what was going on during that period of time. That is the most important thing.

Ted Simons: When you talk to folks about what you experience in that period of time, what do you emphasize, what do you want people to know?

Asa Herring: About that particular era?

Ted Simons: Yes.

Asa Herring: It was a very difficult task to get into the program to start with. And -- but I -- as I said, I was at Tuskegee institute already in the college there, and I enjoyed flying, but I was not -- my mother didn't want me to fly. So I went into aircraft maintenance. But that is just one side of the story there.

Ted Simons: Are you concerned at all with the way the story will be told?

Richard Toliver: Well, I don't know that I would call it concerned. I have aspirations to see that the truth and the reality is there. We've seen something different, you know, when it comes out of Hollywood. So I'm hoping as Bob has said here, that we'll get the essence of the story. I think the fact that there is a story, there is a movie that reflects the actual combat that African-Americans, negroes as we were called in those days, actually performed in. I think that part of it is very important, so hopefully people will come away with the fact that it is a factual story. Black men did fly, they made enormous contributions to help win the war in World War II.

Ted Simons: I want to get to your personal stories, because I'm fascinated by these kinds of things. Did you always want to be a pilot? What got you into flying?

Bob Ashby: What got me into flying was, I was approaching the age where I would be drafted in World War II, and I had to make a decision on what direction I wanted to go. After analyzing all the aspects, the navy, and the infantry, I decided the Air Force was the best place to go. So I went for the Air Force.

Ted Simons: Did family and friends, knowing the way things were back in those days, did they try to discourage you, saying you're never going to be able to do this, that, and the other?

Bob Ashby: No. My mother thought I was mature enough to make a decision like this, and we talked it over, and she supported me wholeheartedly. And the entire family supported me. So my group as a whole was completely behind me in my endeavor.

Ted Simons: We've heard that you went down to Tuskegee first for airline and aircraft maintenance, but you got to become a pilot eventually. Did you always want to be a pilot or was it something that occurred to you maybe a little later in life?

Asa Herring: Oh, no, I wanted to be a pilot since I was young. A kid. I made model airplanes and things of that sort to get into the flow. But I was influenced by a movie I saw, Robert Stack and Edmond O'Brien, "Fighter Pilot" and that was in Chicago in the -- I was so impressed, I wanted to volunteer. But I was only 16, so I had to wait until I was 18 before I could get in. But I'd like to see the movie show the actual facts, not just part of entertainment, but an educational process can be there too.

Ted Simons: Yeah. How about you, did you always want to be a fighter pilot?

Richard Toliver: I was fortunate enough growing up in California, in Oxnard Californai, a small town, during World War II, and we lived just adjacent to the Oxnard airfield. And it was also a great time for a youngster, a great school to be growing up. There were a lot of energy, people working together in the community, and the church, and the schools. And so I got caught up in that energy as a grade schooler, and by the time I was 7 years old, I knew I wanted to fly airplanes, and I had to pester my mom until she bought me my own airplane and I was only kid in the neighborhood flying around the playground with my own private airplane.
Ted Simons: Isnt't that something.
Richard Toliver: But later we moved back to the south after the war, and then had to struggle for some 10 years to keep that dream alive. Fortunately I made my way to Tuskegee and of course that dream was reignited by the original airmen there, and then I was exposed to aviation for the first time, quite frankly, after I got to Tuskegee.

Ted Simons: You mentioned the original airmen, we have a couple of them here right now.
Richard Toliver: Yes indeed.
Ted Simons: These were obviously your mentors. How did they help you? What did they do, what did they say?

Richard Toliver: The greatest way was that by example, by their character, by their insisting that we pursue excellence from the beginning. In fact they talked very little about what they had accomplished. And they demonstrated what we should be by example. And I -- those of us in ROTC at the time readily said, we want to be like them. We want to walk like them, talk like them, some of us could never look as good as they did, so we had to give up on that. But they set a marvelous example by their actions, by their character, by their insistence on excellence.

Ted Simons: Two-part question here. For the original Tuskegee airmen, who are your mentors, A, and B, when the second generation came through, what do you try time impress upon them? What do they need to know?

Bob Ashby: At that time as far as aviation was concerned, we had no mentors at that time. So I really didn't think about flying as a career. Or something that I could do, because of the segregation was the attitude that was prevalent throughout this country. And so I never considered it. But once the program was -- the fight was over and they finally accepted blacks into the air corps, and it was available, then I realized this is something I can do, anyone can fly, I can fly. And I always had that attitude that if anyone could do it, I can do it.

Ted Simons: Is that what you told the younger guys coming through?

Bob Ashby: Yeah.

Ted Simons: Same kind of thing.

Bob Ashby: Same kind of thing.

Ted Simons: If you want to do it, do it.

Bob Ashby: You can do anything anyone else can do, you just have to apply yourself.

Ted Simons: Do you remember, obviously you were inspired by a film, but when you got to Tuskegee there had to be people there that took you under their wing a little bit and showed you around, and you had to probably have done the same thing for some of the younger guys, correct?

Asa Herring: Oh, yes. I had an instructor, Walter Nelson, Nelson was very influential in my life. And also Chief Anderson, Anderson was the chief pilot at the field when the program first started. And I would go out there for the maintenance training and also he had an airplane. And I got a flight in that airplane and I was really impressed by that.

Bob Ashby: This program was twofold. The initial phase of our training, learning to fly, the first time going up in the air, that was the civilian school, the institute, Tuskegee institute. And once you accomplished that, they were building the air base, the army air corps was building the air base, and after you learned to fly with this plane, soloing and all that, then we moved over to the military base, which was Tuskegee army airfield. And that's where the military training took over.

Ted Simons: You mentioned Tuskegee, we talk about Tuskegee, Alabama. Describe the town, describe the institute, the air program, and your feelings when you first got there.

Richard Toliver: Well, I got to Tuskegee shortly after the Korean War. The civil rights movement hadn't really kicked off quite -- although Dr. King had successfully completed the bus boycott in Montgomery. But Alabama was called the cradle of the confederacy in those days, and everywhere outside of an institution like Tuskegee you saw evidence of that. So when I got to the small town I was actually discouraged until a few miles later when I arrived on campus. It was the famous Tuskegee institute with its campus, its people, again, a new kind of energy, and I hadn't experienced that for 10 years. So I called it my new oasis, my new paradise, because everywhere the people were interested in educating the students, the military leaders, the Tuskegee airmen, both from the Air Force as well as the army were all about the business of trying to train young African-Americans to be the very best and be able to compete with the world. So I got caught up in that. But the campus itself was -- and still is a beautiful campus. The people were wonderful, and so it was just great to be on the campus at the time.

Ted Simons: Did it feel like heaven to you when you got to Tuskegee?

Asa Herring: Well, it was startling at first, but --

Ted Simons: How so?

Asa Herring: Well, I had never been away from home before when I was that young, and as I said, I came from a small town, and this was a complete environment into its own. Tuskegee sitting right in the middle of Alabama there, near different places like -- I've never heard of. So I had been in that area before, but I'd never lived in there until I went to Tuskegee. That -- that really impressed me.

Bob Ashby: When I enlisted in the air corps at the time, I was in New Jersey. And even getting down to Tuskegee I encountered problems. In fact, the group that I was taking down, we were kicked off the train as soon as we crossed over the river there in Arlington, and once we got into Virginia, they kicked us off the train.

Ted Simons: My goodness.

Bob Ashby: Because we were demanding our sleeping accommodation, which we were supposed to have, and they weren't giving it to us. They were sticking us in a segregated car. And the going to the town of Tuskegee, this in itself was a real problem, because this country was not segregated, three-fourths of the country was not segregated.3/4th of the country was not segregated. Just a small section in the southeast. And for the military to actually come up and determine that the entire black input into the service was going to be segregated, it was an asinine decision.

Ted Simons: I wanted to get to the idea and the concept, because it's so difficult for us to comprehend here the way things were. In the military, outside of the military, compare if you will the racial prejudice, the bias, the concept of segregation in the military before Truman made his order, and what you saw in society. Especially down there in the south.

Richard Toliver: Well, in 1925, it was a military manifesto, so to speak, that African-Americans were not capable of being pilots or training technician and so on. That was put together as the official position, and that persisted from 1925 all the way up to the beginning of World War II. And so the military leaders and the community accepted that as fact. But it wasn't until after the Tuskegee airmen had come along and disproved that emphatically in the war, but even when president Truman declared that we would have an integrated military in 1948, it still took another 15 years for many of the southern bases and a few of the others, to actually begin to fully integrate the military bases. So you had to some extent an order that says you will integrate, and that facilitated some interaction that had been taking place before. However, as soon as military people left the base in the south, then they were subjected to the racial, the harshness of the racial prejudice immediately outside of the gate.
Ted Simons: But then--- please, please…
Bob Ashby: But at the very beginning, the military leaders and the officers in the military at that time primarily, I would say 80% of them were southerners. So they brought that prejudice into the military with them. And people didn't realize Tuskegee army airfield was segregated. We had separate drinking fountains, separate eating facilities all of this was accomplished right on the army air corps base at the very initial phase of it. Later on, after we got rid of the commanding officer we had, and brought in Colonel Parish, things changed, and we became an integrated unit at the base.

Ted Simons: When you succeeded in everything you were asked to do, in military matters, a military person would look at results more than anything. There still was that bias, that prejudice?

Bob Ashby: Oh, yes.
Richard Toliver: Yes.
Asa Herring: Yes. You can say President Truman signed an executive order, but that's a piece of paper. You have some recourse, but you just can't get in the hearts and minds of people to change. And that's a long process, a slow process that has taken in effect as we go along. And it's much, much more dynamic understandable position that we have nowadays, because we didn't have any opportunities of that sort back in the '40s.

Bob Ashby: Initially at the military bases, and the civilian communities in the south, there was no difference. The same segregation policy that was in the little towns were also on the base.

Richard Toliver: And that didn't really start to change until the end of -- the end of President Kennedy, there was several special orders issued to commanders, and now commanders on the bases were going to be held accountable for full integration. In 1963 the Air Force base in Florida, the base was largely segregated. And some of us lieutenants were involved in helping to bring about a change. We didn't have a choice but to get involved in a situation like that. But we -- about 15,000 people on that base, civilian and military, but we couldn't go off the Air Force base in 1963 down to McDonald's Hamburger place and get a Hamburger. And there were a lot of things that had to happen to bring about that change. You couldn't go off base to be served in a restaurant or bar or get a hotel in 1963.

Ted Simons: With that in mind, were you -- sometimes folks in the military can feel separate from what's happening stateside, even if they are stateside, they're not quite sure, they're so wrapped up in military matters, how aware were you of the civil rights movement, how much did you feel a part of the civil rights movement?

Richard Toliver: Well, I think -- I came along at that time I was in Alabama, I was stationed in Florida, I was stationed in Alabama with the pilot training there. So the civil rights movement was all around me. I'm an eye witness to some of the horrific things that took place in Alabama, the children that were killed in Birmingham, as a matter of fact, were killed while I was a young officer. The march to Montgomery took place while I was in student training. So I was in the middle of that either transiting or fighting, or struggling on base with some of the things that were going on outside. And so we had no choice but to get involved, to try to make a difference. But yes, we were very acutely aware of the situations that were going on all around us. And it wasn't, again, until we had some help by the way from -- in this case from Tuskegee, some of the Tuskegee airmen who were still over there, or petitioning through Washington to try to bring about a change and make things happen as was the policy to make them happen.

Ted Simons: Did you feel that your position, doing what you do, representing who you represented, did you feel a part of the movement, whether you wanted to or not, you were there, you were at the forefront.

Bob Ashby: Actually, at that time we were the movement. In fact, in the bomber outfit and the reason they formed this bomber outfit, the commanders over in Europe did not want any more blacks over in Europe. They were -- they needed fighter pilots all over there, and we had probably 500 pilots' backs in the states ready to go overseas. But they didn't want them. So they were trying to figure out what to do with all these pilots. So they decided to form a bomber outfit, B-25s. And that really was never an indication they wanted to really effectively put this together, because every time the unit got together and started training, they would close it down and move them to another base. And they would start all over again. As soon as things got moving they would close the base down and move them someplace else. In fact, the bomber outfit was one of the largest group of blacks trying to desegregate the military bases. In fact, they weren't allowed in the officers' club, and they would go up small groups at a time to get into the officers' club and they would be turned away. And eventually 101 of these officers were arrested. Just for going -- trying to go into a military club.

Richard Toliver: I might add, that was actually the genesis of a nonviolent demonstration. It actually happened in the military, these Tuskegee airmen decided they'd had enough. And so they took it upon themselves against the orders that were given to them by the white commanders, to integrate or force the integration of that. That base, that was indeed the benchmark that indeed led ultimately to the civil rights struggle that was evolved right in Montgomery, Alabama, seven years later. Dr. King came on board at that point. But it was seven years after the war ended in 1945, and the integration process was started by airmen themselves.

Ted Simons: I want to ask you quickly, when people watch this film and when they hear you speak here, what do you want them to take from this? What do you want them to know about you and your fellow pilots?

Asa Herring: I'd like them to know I'm not any special type of human being. I think if they can know what their goals are, the things they want to do, and they tackle them and stick with it, you could do anything.

Ted Simons: That's a wonderful place to stop. It is a pleasure, and it's an honor to have you all here. Thank you so much for joining us on "Arizona Horizon."

Bob Ashby: One thing I didn't get in there --

Ted Simons: Yes, please go ahead, real quick.

Bob Ashby: Rosa Parks grew up in Tuskegee. So she was aware of what the Tuskegee airmen was doing and what they were trying to accomplish. Later on when she stood up and said we're not going to take it anymore, the bus in Montgomery, Alabama, this was a continuation of what was happening in Tuskegee.

Ted Simons: Thank you so much for joining us. It's a pleasure.

Bob Ashby: Thank you.

Ted Simons: Thank you for joining us tonight on this special edition of "Arizona Horizon." I'm Ted Simons. You have a great evening.

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