EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE — When James Harvey III volunteered to become an Air Force pilot during World War II, he wasn’t wanted.
Harvey, who is black, said that in the early 1940s, the Air Force didn’t believe people of his skin color had the intelligence or ability to fly. Under pressure, they set up a special school and shipped aspiring black pilots there.
“They didn’t want us to be pilots,” Harvey said. “The program was actually designed for us to fail.”
Despite that, Harvey succeeded, along with dozens of other black men who went through the flight school. They proved the military wrong, fighting not only on the battlefield, but also for social and civil rights at home.
On Monday, Maurice Lee, a young black airman who commands the 33rd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron at Eglin Air Force Base, was promoted to lieutenant colonel. During the ceremony, he was flanked by Harvey, his 89-year-old predecessor and friend.
The two met in preparation for an awards ceremony last year and have become close. Lee has visited Harvey’s home in Denver, Colo., several times.
Lee said he was honored and humbled to have Harvey attend his promotion.
“At a time when our country was totally involved in World War II, these folks volunteered to put their lives on the line and to challenge the social status for everyone,” Lee said after his promotion ceremony. “These were some of the very first people to do that and to overcome those obstacles and challenges.”
Harvey said that while the Tuskegee program was designed for him and other airmen to fail, they didn’t.
The washout rate at the school was 40 percent, compared to over 60 percent for the rest of the Air Force, he said.
Some in the military were unhappy with the Tuskegee airmen’s success and pushed the rate until it reached over 70 percent. They were washing out qualified pilots for minor infractions such as spots on their pink and green uniforms, Harvey said.
A commander reportedly commented that the military was failing out better pilots at Tuskegee than were graduating from other academies.
Harvey was one of the few who made it through.
“I just knew I wasn’t going to wash out,” he said.
They had to be perfect. The men who graduated and became the first black pilots to serve in combat are highly regarded and seen as some of the top pilots in their field.
“We were the best, and we proved it,” Harvey said.
The lieutenant colonel went on to become the military’s first black jet pilot to fight in the Korean War, and he waged significant battles for the American forces.
In 1949, after a barrage of legal challenges and political and social pressure, the U.S. military was desegregated.
The Tuskegee airmen were splintered and embedded with primarily white units.
Harvey said after that, he didn’t face much harassment or discrimination within the military, but the civilian world was a different story.
When stationed in California, he would make long cross-country drives to visit his home on the East Coast. He wasn’t able to stop for overnight stays in hotels because he was black.
He said he tried wearing his uniform with hopes that it would help, but it rarely did.
He said he doesn’t like to think too much about how he and other black servicemen were treated.
“I just don’t want that in my psyche,” he said.
Times have moved on. And so has the Air Force.
During his 22 years of service, Harvey flew more than 10 different aircraft, including the F-102, the Air Force’s first supersonic interceptor jet, developed in the 1950s. On Monday, he was able to view the military’s newest stealth fighter jet, the F-35, the plane that Lee works to maintain.
Harvey was excited to see it.
“The jets I flew could go supersonic, but the F-35 can definitely do better than that.”
Contact Daily News Staff Writer Lauren Sage Reinlie at 850-315-4443 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @LaurenRnwfdn.