World War II was the most segregated war the United States ever fought, according Dr. Yenwith Whitney, a former Tuskegee Airman from Sarasota, Fla.
“Many commanders didn’t want blacks doing anything but menial labor in World War II. They didn’t think blacks were smart enough to do things like fly airplanes,” Whitney, who flew in the all-black 332 Fighter Group, told a packed house at the North Port Library Black History Month lecture.
The retired 78-year-old fighter pilot, who also received an aeronautical engineering degree from MIT, holds a Masters in math education and a doctorate in International Education from Columbia University, proved this nation’s military leaders wrong more than a half century ago. After graduating from a Brooklyn, N.Y., high school during the war, he signed up for the fledgling black aviation program and made it.
“I took my basic training in Biloxi, Miss. I had never been in the South before and it didn’t make me very happy to be in Biloxi. They told us before we went South, we only had one purpose being there and that was to train. Don’t get in any kinda trouble,” Whitney recalled.
He didn’t and survived basic training. From there he was sent to Tuskegee Institute, the premier black college in Alabama at the time. It trained young black men to become fighter pilots during World War II.
“I had never seen an airplane before,” he said. “The nearest I got to an airplane was building models.”
At Tuskegee they started by flying Piper Cubs. Each cadet received 10 hours flight training in Cubs. From there, they graduated to Ryan PT-19 trainers.
“There was only one thing we dreamed of and that was getting our wings. If you washed out, it was the most devastating thing that could happen to you,” Whitney said a lifetime later. “We started out with 64 in our class, but only 26 got their wings and graduated. That was the greatest day of my life. I had achieved something significant.”
After finishing advanced flight training in a P-47 “Thunderbolt” fighter, they were ready for war. They knew how to handle their airplanes.
Whitney and the other black pilots who graduated with him late in 1944 were sent to the the 332 Fighter Group in Italy to become “Red Tails” — named for the painting on the tails of their fighters.
He was assigned to the 301st Fighter Squadron. It was one of four all-black fighter units in the 332nd — the 99th, 100th, 301st and 302nd — of the 15th Air Force.
“When we arrived in Italy, they were flying P-51 Mustangs. The P-51 was the most gorgeous and the best fighter the 15th Air Force had,” he said with a smile. “I got a brand new one that I named ‘Lovely Lady,’ for my mother on one side, and ‘Terri,’ for my girlfriend on the other side.
“When we flew our first mission, my feet were shaking on the rudder pedals,” he remembered. “If we weren’t sharp, we were told someone was going to shoot us down. That mission went off pretty well. We escorted bombers to Austria.”
It was their job to stop the German fighters from attacking the American bombers. The pilots of the 332nd Fighter Group were good at it.
“We never lost a single bomber to an enemy fighter,” Whitney said. “The reason was that we stayed with the bombers. Another thing we did that nobody else did was we would offer to accompany a bomber that had been shot up and provide them an escort back to base.”
To emphasize how the pilots of the 332nd were appreciated by the bomber crews, he read a letter he received from a crewman following another speech he gave recently about the Tuskegee Airmen.
“It seems to me the 332nd usually flew on the longest missions with us,” the crewman wrote. “It was reassuring they accompanied us all the way to our missions and back. When we learned the 332nd was providing our escort, we breathed a little easier.
“Thank you again for those great deeds more than half a century ago,” the old crewman said in part.
“On March 24, 1945, we flew the longest mission on the European Continent. We flew from Italy to Berlin and back. It was an all-out effort on the part of the 8th Air Force, 15th Air Force, 12th Air Force, and 9th Air Force,” Whitney noted. “The bombers were dropping one last devastating blow on Berlin. I was on that mission flying bomber escort in my P-51.”
It was on this mission he saw his first German ME-262 jet fighter. The fighter flew by their formation of Mustangs at 500 mph, almost 200 mph faster than their P-51s could fly.
“On that day, the Germans flew every jet they had against us. The war was almost over and they were making their last stand,” he said. “Three of our guys shot down three of the ME-262s that day.”
His unit would receive the Presidential Unit Citation for their part in the last big bomb raid over Berlin.
By the time the war in Europe concluded on May 8, 1945, Lt. Yenwith Whitney had flown 34 missions in a P-51 over enemy territory. Although he never had the opportunity to shoot down an enemy plane, it wasn’t for lack of trying.
Shortly after he was discharged from the U.S. Army Air Force in 1945, he applied for a pilot’s job with one of the airlines in New York. He wasn’t considered for the position. The 20-year-old black aviator from Brooklyn found out in a hurry some things in the United States of America hadn’t changed despite the war. It would be 1963 before the airlines hired their first black pilot, Whitney said.
“So the question is, ‘Why did we black aviators fly for a nation that did not respect us?'” he asked rhetorically.
“I wasn’t concerned about what anyone thought about me. Flying was a challenge and something I wanted to do. I wanted to be a valuable asset to our country. I wanted to be a good soldier.”
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Thursday, Feb. 20, 2003 and is republished with permission.
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Dec. 22, 1924 – April 12, 2011
Dr. Yenwith Whitney of Sarasota, Fla. died April 12, 2011 after a long illness. He was 86.
In 1943 he became a member of the 301st fighter squadron. He served as a fighter pilot in Europe during WWII as a member of the elite Tuskegee Airmen.
After the war he graduated from MIT on the GI Bill and worked for a time in aeronautical engineering. He later joined the Board of Foreign Missions of the Presbyterian Church and began a life of service to the church.
He served in Cameroon, West Africa as a teacher of math and physics for 10 years. Upon returning to the USA, he became a lay church executive for the Presbyterian Church. He earned a Doctorate in Education from Columbia University and briefly served as principal of the Boggs Academy of Keysville, Ga.
He continued his church service as Liaison with Africa and later as Associate for Southern Africa. He retired in 1992 and he and his wife moved to Sarasota, Fla. in 1998. He was a member of the Boule. He worked with MIT and its alumni association in their recruitment efforts. He also worked with the Tuskegee Airmen Association giving talks to many groups about his wartime experiences.
He is survived by his daughters, Dr. Saundra Curry and Karen Whitney; stepson, Earl Tucker; son-in-law, Donald Curry; grandson, Peter Curry; sister, Ada (Alvin) Robinson of Chattanooga; many nieces and nephews.
Services were held on Monday, April 18, 2011, in Sarasota, Fla. Announced by John P. Franklin Funeral Home, 1101 Dodds Ave., 622-9995.