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Tuskegee airmen remember flight of historic squadron

The men remember the days among the first black U.S. aviators.

By BOB CAYLOR of The News-Sentinel

Fifty years later, two Fort Wayne men remember their days in military aviation training at Tuskegee, Ala., as among the important things they've done.

Although neither Jesse Robinson nor Harold Gaulden became one of the 992 pilots trained there during World War II, they're proud to be two among the "Tuskegee Airmen."

Until World War II, blacks had been barred from flying for the armed services. After the war began, President Franklin Roosevelt directed the War Department to begin training blacks as pilots. They trained on a nearly all- black base, Tuskegee Army Air Field. By the end of the war, fighter pilots trained there - still segregated in all-black squadrons - had racked up an impressive combat record in Europe.

The 400 Tuskegee Airmen who flew combat missions shot down 111 enemy aircraft in dogfights and crippled another 150 on the ground.

This month, the story of the Tuskegee Airmen has even greater visibility. HBO is showing a film starring Laurence Fishburne that tells their story, the story of the men who broke the color line in military flying.

By the time Robinson and Gaulden, both 68, arrived in Tuskegee in 1945, it had become almost entirely a black operation. Only the base commander, Col. Noel Parrish, and a few doctors and other staff were white.

"There were only black officers and fliers," Robinson said. "I wasn't really fully cognizant of what it really meant. I really loved Tuskegee, but I was just an 18-year-old kid, and I'm sure I didn't recognize the historical importance of what was going on at the time."

"I don't think it even crossed our minds at the time," Gaulden said. Both men grew up in small towns in the south; Robinson in Norton, Va., and Gaulden in Grambling, La. Although they weren't acquainted until they bumped into one another recently in Fort Wayne, both of them were drafted and served at Tuskegee about the same time.

Gaulden said he never really considered trying to become a pilot, and he was assigned to a fire and rescue team after he arrived in Tuskegee.

Although the alumni of Tuskegee who saw action in Europe were all fighter pilots, the base had started training bomber crews by the time Robinson arrived there early in 1945. Fortunately, there weren't many bomber crashes. Gaulden recalls working only one crash of a B-25.

"It took all hands, exceptin' one," he said.

Even though these soldiers at Tuskegee were pioneers, Gaulden remembers that they weren't treated like heroes in Tuskegee, the town near what is now the famous Tuskegee University.

"They treated us like dirt," he said.

Soldiers visiting the town often were harassed and even beaten by local police. But Parrish, whom Gaulden described as "a southern gentleman" did his best on behalf of his men.

"He could sit down and listen and negotiate, and he'd go up to downtown Tuskegee, where we weren't welcome, and negotiate," Gaulden said.

The colonel was never able to get the city to roll out the red carpet for the black fliers. But he did make it better.

Gaulden was discharged from the Army in 1946. Soon after, he followed several other relatives who'd come from Louisiana to Fort Wayne to work in factories. He worked a variety of jobs and then settled into driving a truck. He continues to drive, now for Omnisource.

Robinson came there even later, in the summer of 1945. He applied to become an air cadet, but because the war was so close to finished the Army had cut back on the program.

Instead, he became a court clerk in the judge advocate's office at the base. After he was discharged late in 1946, he enrolled at West Virginia State College and came within about a semester of getting a degree when he was called into active duty at the opening of the Korean War.

After Korea, Robinson was stationed in Japan and liked the travel that came with Army life. He made a 30-year career of the service, and spent most of it overseas. Eventually he moved into military intelligence and retired in 1980 as a lieutenant.

He came to Fort Wayne almost five years ago to be near his sister, who has lived here about 40 years.

Now both men make their time among the Tuskegee Airmen a serious hobby. Gaulden's living room is decorated with photos and plaques related to the airmen. The top of his television set is crowded with statues of aviators and models of World War II fighters and the B-25 that the airmen used when he was at the base.

Robinson and Gaulden both attended a national convention of the airmen in Atlanta last month, where they saw the premiere of Fishbourne's film. "It did pretty well for someone who knew nothing about it," he said. "But it was just a very, very small portion of the whole story," Gaulden said. Earlier this month, Robinson, Gaulden and Walter Palmer, an Indianapolis pilot from the Tuskegee group, were in a Tuskegee Airmen float in Indianapolis during the American Legion convention there.

Robinson said the streets were lined with thousands of people - "and 99 percent of them were white" - applauding, saluting and begging autographs from the Tuskegee Airmen.

"I've never felt so good in all my life as I did after that reception we got in Indianapolis. . . . You could see the sincerity in their faces," he said.