In honor of Black History Month, we wanted to take the opportunity to recognize a brave group of African Americans: Tuskegee Airmen. Kermit Bailer, the late husband of Penny Bailer, Executive Director of City Year Detroit, was one of these brave men. This is a piece of his story as told by Penny…
Kermit Bailer was born on April 17, 1921 in Detroit, Michigan. He served in the U. S. Army Air Force from 1943-1945, originally stationed at Moton Field in Tuskegee, Alabama, when the armed forces were 100% segregated and Moton was home to a “military experiment” to train America’s first African-American military pilots.
Kermit was a Tuskegee Airman. He achieved the rank of First Lieutenant aerial navigator bombardier gunner with the 616th Squadron of the 477th composite Bomb Group.
Kermit told me that his years as a Tuskegee Airman were searing in their impact on him as a young African American man who had never been to the south. Even though Detroit in the 1930’s and 40’s had provided him with excellent integrated public schools, his ordinary daily activities in Detroit were strictly segregated. Innumerable rights and privileges deemed ordinary for whites were universally denied to African Americans.
Tuskegee presented more daunting challenges, even to men accustomed to entrenched discrimination. Then referred to (in polite company) as “Negroes” or “colored,” at Tuskegee, these fine Airmen were viciously assaulted with the infamous “n” word. In addition to having to endure the brutal slurs, taunts and denigrations of the local rednecks, Tuskegee Airmen had to suffer the “concerns” and horrendous insults of the officials of the United States government.
Air Force generals routinely wrote in War Department correspondence that “persons of the Negro species are intellectually and physically incapable of operating complex aircraft machinery” — ruling them by race alone as incompetent to fly the planes in which they were being repetitively trained.
He was trained in Tuskegee, Hondo, TX, Roswell, NM, Yuma, Arizona and at Godman Field, Kentucky – the site of the infamous and historic mutiny of 103 black officers who were denied admittance to the officer’s club. (In fact, one of the most shocking things Kermit ever told me was that the Nazi prisoners of war stationed there were allowed to shop in the Godman Field PX — while the black officers could not go into the officer’s club!)
Even when Eleanor Roosevelt horrified the D.C. establishment by insisting, during a visit to Moton Field, on flying with a Tuskegee pilot, the War Department generals refused to budge. Only when the United States and our allies were in serious danger of losing the war and when hundreds of white American bombers and pilots were being lost to the Nazis, did the generals finally relent and begin to allow the Tuskegee Airmen to fly.
Everyone knows what happened next. The Tuskegee Airmen flew – and WOW did they fly!
They escorted bomber after bomber through fierce aerial battles with the Nazis throughout the remainder of the war – and NEVER LOST A BOMBER. The word spread like wildfire, and white bomber pilots began demanding the TA as aerial escorts. They came home with Distinguished Flying Crosses and countless other medals for courage and skill — but were equally as proud that they had also fought to fly in the face of insidious discrimination at home – and won.
Kermit completed his training assignment at Godman Field and was ominously assigned to fly in the invasion of Japan – which thankfully never occurred, once the atomic bomb ended the war.
The Tuskegee Airmen who did fly so heroically over Europe and Africa returned home, some having been shot down, captured and brutally imprisoned as POWs. Some, of course, did not return. But those who returned to Detroit continued their historic service, including Kermit, through his death in 1996 and others to this very day in their late 80’s and 90’s – becoming teachers, doctors, lawyers and the like while fighting against discrimination every step of the way.
Kermit helped found the Detroit chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen, of which I am a proud Life Member, and he and his buddies deepened their friendships, becoming amazing role models for children and adults alike – speaking in schools and at civic events and telling their story, building the National Museum of the Tuskegee Airmen in Detroit at Fort Wayne, and finally in 2007, receiving the Congressional Gold Medal for their incredible service from the President of the United States.
Kermit and his TA buddies continued to serve in many heroic roles throughout their lifetimes. They battled and fought for equal opportunity at home just as they had heroically battled the Nazis while fighting insidious racism within the armed forces.
I am proud to be able to share this part of his life with you as someone who still wears my late husband’s robin’s egg blue Tuskegee Airman jacket whenever the guys invite me to participate in one of their inspiring activities.
If you want to learn more about the Tuskegee Airmen, I highly recommend seeing the original HBO movie, “The Tuskegee Airmen,” as the most compelling account every made of their story. Kermit was able to see it before he died, and it brought him to tears. He said that the “tone” of it was “pitch perfect” and that “they got it just right.” Enjoy “Red Tails,” too – but don’t miss checking out the original – and show it to your children and grandchildren. You won’t regret it, I assure you!