EDITOR’S NOTE: First of a two-part story.
George Hardy of Sarasota, Fla. was a Tuskegee Airman. The retired lieutenant colonel began his military career as a member of the all-black 99th Fighter Squadron, flying 21 combat missions over Germany during the final two months before V-E Day in World War II in a P-51 “Mustang” fighter plane.
By the time he completed his 28-year military career, Hardy had not only flown a fighter in the Second World War, he had flown 45 additional combat missions as co-pilot of a B-29 “Superfortress” bomber during the Korean War and finished up flying 70 more missions as the pilot of a AC-119 “Stinger” Gunship in Vietnam.
He has been on the cutting edge of the integration battle in this country for most of his 84 years. After graduating from a Philadelphia high school at 17 in 1942, Hardy joined the U.S. Army and immediately qualified for cadet training at the all-black Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.
“It didn’t really hit us what would happen as far as integration was concerned until we got on the train to come south. Three of us, who were headed to Tuskegee, took a Pullman from Philadelphia to Cincinnati, Ohio. In Cincinnati we switched to the L&M Railroad to go south to New Orleans and on to Biloxi, Miss., where we did six weeks of basic training,” Hardy recalled.
“In the dining car going south, they couldn’t have whites and blacks eating together. Their was a heavy curtain that could be pulled across the dining area when we ate. There were four tables for us behind the curtain,” he said.
In August 1944, Hardy arrived at the Tuskegee Institute and began his pilot training. The first 10 weeks were spent on campus taking college courses. By December, his group moved to Tuskegee Army Air Field on the outskirts of town to start their Aviation Cadet training.
Black instructor-pilots taught them the basics of flight in a PT-19 single-engine monoplane. After 10 weeks of basic flight school, his group graduated to an AT-6 single-engine trainer with retractable landing gear.
“We got white instructors when we began flying the AT-6,” he said. “I thought they were great.”
On Sept. 8, 1944, Hardy ‘s group of cadets graduated from flight school at Tuskegee as 2nd lieutenants in the U.S. Army Air Corps. There were 24 black aviators in his graduating class.
After Tuskegee, they were sent to South Carolina to obtain an additional 60 hours of flight time learning to fly a P-47 “Thunderbolt” fighter before being shipped overseas into combat.
“I flew my 21 missions in March and April 1945. I didn’t run into any German fighters.” he said. “Mostly I flew escort missions for B-17 ‘Flying Fortresses’ and B-24 ‘Liberator’ bombers. When we completed these missions, we could look for targets of opportunity to strafe.”
The war in Europe ended May 8, 1945.
He and 15 other Tuskegee Airmen returned stateside in August 1945.
“It was a discouraging time for us. When I arrived back in Tuskegee, nothing had changed on the integration front,” he said. “I got out of the service in November 1946 and enrolled in the New York University School of Engineering.”
In June 1948, Hardy completed his first year of college at NYU. About the same time, the chief of staff of the Air Force announced that branch of the service would integrate, several months before President Harry Truman signed legislation to integrate all of the U.S. Armed Forces.
“Immediately Col. Benjamin Davis, commander of the 99th Fighter Squadron in WWII, wanted more pilots,” Hardy said. “I got a letter from Col. Davis asking me to come back into the Air Force after wrapping up my first year of engineering school. I accepted.”
In March 2007, almost 65 years after going to Tuskegee at 18 to learn to be a fighter pilot, retired Lt. Col. George Hardy received an engraved invitation from President George W. Bush and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi to be one of the guests of honor at a formal gathering of all living Tuskegee Airmen at the Capitol.
The Tuskegee Airmen as a group were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal by the president, recognizing their service in WWII. The face of the medal shows an airman wearing his leather cap and goggles in the foreground and two members of the ground crew in the background. Around the top edge of the medal, it’s engraved “Tuskegee Airman” and dated “1941-1949.”
On the flip side are pictures of a P-40″Warhawk” fighter, a P-51 “Mustang” and a B-25 “Mitchell” twin-engine bomber, all flown by Tuskegee pilots during the Second World War. The inscription reads: “Outstanding combat record inspired revolutionary reform in the armed forces.”
The original medal is now part of the Tuskegee exhibit in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C. As the old airmen left the event, they were each given duplicate medals in bronze.
What Hardy remembers most about the affair is a comment made by President Bush as the gathering was wrapping up.
“‘For the many people who did not salute you, I today salute you,’ the president said. He saluted us. All of us got to our feet and returned his salute,” Hardy said.
Lt. Col. George Hardy ‘s military awards include: the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal with 11 oak leaf-clusters, and two Presidential Unit Citations.
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Florida on Tuesday, July 21, 2009 and is republished with permission.
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