"The Wind Beneath Their Wings"

Karen Hatter  
Stopping by her elderly father's home in West Philadelphia, to look in on him one day in 1995, as was her habit, my sister in law happened to answer the telephone. The man on the other end of the line had been searching for her father for over forty years.
That's how events unfolded on the day that she learned that her father, the family calls him Poppo, had been a member of the legendary pioneers of Black aviation in the United States of America, the Tuskegee Airmen, known to many as the 'Lonely Eagles', who served during World War II.

From this site, it states:

The "Tuskegee Airmen" refers to all who were involved in the Army Air Corps program to train African-Americans to fly and maintain combat aircraft. The Tuskegee Airmen included pilots, navigators, bombardiers, maintenance and support staff, instructors, and all the personnel who kept the planes in the air.

The Black pilots, referred to as Colored in those days, acting as escorts and flying planes with red stripes painted on their tails, gained notoriety for never losing a single plane to enemy fire, with many White pilots requesting them for escort duty.

For years, Jac would secretly pull out old, sepia tinted and black and white photos of her father that her mother kept in the dining room cupboard, pictures of her father posed beside an airplane and with other men. She'd learned early not to ask any questions since doing so sent him into, what was viewed by the family, an inexplicably, foul mood.

Reflections on that period in her father's life are filled with bittersweet memories, many unspoken and known only to him and will be taken to his grave with him.

It turned out, the man on the other end of the phone that day was Sgt. Edmund L. Wilkinson, retired, of the 96th Air Service Group, 367th Service Squadron, from Poppo's old unit.

The sergeant, checking to make sure he had the right number, asked if Poppo was known as 'Dimples'. Of course, my sister in law repeated the nickname, to which her father's ears perked up.

The sergeant had been attempting to contact all of the remaining members of the squad to put together a record of their service and achievements. The squad's story is filled with great accomplishments and achievements, in the face of racism and discrimination. Their stories were written before the Armed Forces were integrated.

Known to the squad as 'Dimples', like many who wanted to serve, he lied about his age and was affectionately labeled 'the Baby'. He was seventeen when he entered the Armed Services, being inducted in July of 1943. In December 1943, he was assigned to the 332nd Fighter Group, a squad of Black U.S. pilots that were sent to serve in Italy.

After that phone call, Poppo opened up a little about his time in the service, sharing a few war stories and snippets of information. Eventually, he handed over several envelops and documents that detailed his military career.

Poppo was inducted into the Army at Fort Meade in Maryland, later to be sent to Biloxi, Mississippi. Prior to his selection to serve in the Tuskegee Airmen in the 367th Service Squadron, he served as a parachute rigger.

In the beginning, the entire operation utilizing Black pilots was classified top secret. Family documents with Poppo's name, noting the squad designation, listing the 96th Service Group history, are stamped Secret, dated November, 1944, with the date of declassification occurring in September, 1958.

The papers state the unit was:

.... constituted as the Headquarters, 96th Maintenance Group (Reduced) (Colored) and assigned to the Advanced Flying School, Tuskegee, Alabama, by the Adjutant General, Washington, D.C. Effective 13 March 1942.

On his record, under Military Occupational Specialty, is listed Airplanes and Engines Mechanic 747. Poppo said the Black airmen were given the older model planes, the P39s and P37s, called 'death traps' or 'junkers' by the White pilots, who refused to fly in them.

Many hardships and indignities due to racial discrimination were suffered by the men attached to the Tuskegee Airmen. Upon the arrival of Poppo's unit, the 367th, in MonteCorvello, Italy, their weapons were confiscated by the White officers. They were informed they were employees, not soldiers. Poppo, along with others of the squad, were trained in the use of the weapons of that day during basic training.

Ever resourceful, one of the 'go to' guys of the unit 'acquired' weapons for all of the disarmed men, which came in handy when German soldiers broke through barricades that had been erected by the men.

Poppo spoke of traveling by train in Italy, on the upholstered seats in the trains and being ordered by U.S. White officers to surrender their seats to White German prisoners of war, sending the Black servicemen to the rear of the train, to sit on wooden benches.

Poppo's most shocking recollection? When interviewed by a local community newspaper in 1996, he recalled during basic training experiencing what he called a "rude awakening". He and other new Black recruits were gathered to watch the lynching of a Black officer on the base in Biloxi, Mississippi. He believes this was done to show them who was in control and to keep them in line.

Because he returned from Europe after the war, where he says he was treated relatively well by the people there, after having served with distinction in defense of his country, only to face the same racism upon his return to the United States, when asked why he never spoke of his involvement with the Tuskegee Airmen, he responded angrily with another question, "What good did any of it do me?"

Poppo was honorably discharged on December 12, 1945. The Tuskegee Airmen Squadron was officially disbanded in 1949.

Like so many Black U.S. soldiers who served during WWII, upon returning home, in Poppo's case, having earned, in addition to other medals, three Bronze Stars, he learned little had changed for the Black man in America.

Although while overseas he learned and spoke fluent Italian and was requested by name for his skill as a mechanic, back home, in U.S., none of that mattered. Having joined the Army out of high school, back home, he was considered untrained and unskilled. He couldn't find work.

Ultimately, after going to school taking electronics courses, he found employment as an electrical technician at RCA in 1948. Married in 1947, he and his wife, beginning in 1949, raised four children, two daughters and two sons.

On February 27, 2000, in honor of his 75th birthday, Poppo was honored by the city council where he resides, along with congressional and state officials. He was presented with a citation recognizing his achievements:

.... joining the family and many friends of Poppo (substitution made for Poppo's proper name) on the occasion of his 75th birthday and in recognition of his distinguished service to his country.

The late Sgt. Edmund L. Wilkinson, of the 96th Air Service Group, 367th Service Squadron has written:

During WWII, for every fighter plane, 10 ground support personnel were required to insure the combat readiness of each airplane. While much has been written about the distinguished record of the men who flew those planes, and in recent years, that record has received increasing deserved recognition, little has been published about the support unit that made it possible for the Tuskegee Airmen pilot to make their mark in history. These units were the wind beneath their wings.

Those units were:

HQ & HG Squadron

366th Service Squadron
367th Service Squadron
1,000th Signal Company (Avn)
1765th Ordinance Supply & Maintenance Company (Avn)
1766th Ordinance Supply & Maintenance Company (Avn)
43rd Medical Supply PLAT (Avn)
1051st QM Truck Co. (Avn)
1901st QM Truck Co. (Avn)

Now, at the age of 83, Poppo is one of the few surviving members of the 96th Air Service Group, 367th Service Squadron, who were christened by his former sergeant ' the wind beneath their wings', the wings of the pilots of the Tuskegee Airmen.

The Greater Philadelphia Chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen Inc. will be hosting the 37th Annual Tuskegee Airmen Inc. Convention later this July 2008 in the United States in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

My warmest and heartfelt thanks to my sister, Jac, for her aid and assistance, providing me with all of the information about Poppo and those who served in the 96th Air Service Group.