Nyabuony Kueth knows about the Tuskegee Airmen. She heard in one of her classes about the acclaimed group of World War II aviators, and has even seen a movie about them.
At UAA’s Black History Month kickoff, the 11-year-old Clark Middle School student actually met one of the 31 surviving Tuskegee Red Tail pilots, Lt. Col. Leo Gray, 89, and heard him describe what it was like to fly in the cockpit of a fighter during missions high above Europe.
“It’s really like a life-changing event,” Nyabuony said, “to meet someone who lived through the times I learned about in school.”
The Tuskegee Airmen had just started battling Nazis in Europe when Gray, then 18, decided to try to become an aviation cadet.
As a teen, Gray visited his grandmother in Revere and saw biplanes taking off and landing at a civilian airfield as he and his friends played in a nearby swimming hole.
“We were just awed to see them flying, but I had no aspirations to fly one,” Gray said. “We didn’t even have a car!”
After graduation, Gray worked at the Boston Port of Embarkation. “I was a laborer lifting boxes and was promoted to being a tally clerk counting boxes,” he said.
Gray decided in May 1943 to take a test to become an aviation cadet, neatly sidestepping a military draft that would have placed him in a job as an Army quartermaster tasked with menial labor—“a servant,” Gray said—or a Navy steward tasked with equally menial labor.
“Back in those days, pilots were revered like astronauts are now,” he said. “If I became a pilot, I’d be somebody.”
The Army Air Corps shipped Gray to Biloxi, Miss., for 30 days of basic training and then to the Tuskegee Institute for five months of college training in math, English, physics and other core subjects.
Gray received 10 hours of training in a J-3 Piper Cub and, on Jan. 24, 1944, took his first solo flight.
One of his first forays into the sky ended before the Curtis P-40 Tomahawk he was piloting even took off, when a wheel came off as he accelerated down the runway toward its takeoff speed of 80 miles per hour. Aviators gave the P-40 a nickname, “Flying Coffin,” because the planes tended to crash.
“At Tuskegee, we had to strengthen our legs so they could handle the mechanical torque of the plane,” he said. “It was buffeting so much I couldn’t keep it straight. I chopped the throttle before the speed hit 80.”
The plane rolled to an uneventful stop and tipped onto one wing. Gray thought a wheel might have collapsed.
An ambulance sped to the scene and medics placed Gray on board, preparing to take him to a doctor for a check-over.
“As we drove away, I said, ‘Look, somebody lost a wheel,’ and one of the guys said, ‘That’s yours,’” Gray said.
Going to war
Gray sailed to Europe in March 1945, bound for Ramitelli airfield—the 332nd Fighter Group’s home base, located on the Adriatic Sea just above the ankle of Italy’s boot-shaped peninsula. From there, Gray flew red-tailed P-47 Thunderbolts—single-engined, single-seat monoplane fighters—on 15 missions that took him over Germany, Austria and Yugoslavia. Gray escorted planes bringing back pilots who had needed to parachute out of downed planes. He also escorted Lockheed P-38 Lightnings performing photo reconnaissance and headed out on strafing missions that involved flying low to attack ground targets with aircraft-mounted automatic weapons.
“We were on the way to a target in Austria and I was the last man in the fourth squadron,” Gray said. “In the middle of the Alps, there was one burst of flak about 25 feet away. I’d only seen it in the movies and thought, ‘So that’s what [flak] looks like. Gee, that’s close.’ Flak is shrapnel; if it hits you, you’re down. If that flak had been a fraction of a degree off, it would’ve hit me.”
That was Gray’s closest brush with death during his service in World War II. His other 14 missions were, he said, “milk runs.”
The war ended in Europe on May 8, 1945.
Establishing a lustrous legacy
A line of people formed to meet Gray as he waited for the Black History Month kickoff celebration to begin. Others examined large photos of Tuskegee Airmen and articles about them that had been propped on easels nearby.
“I want to thank you for the service you made to your country,” one man in a leather flight jacket told Gray. “It’s just an honor to meet you.”
A little girl presented Gray with a big red heart-shaped box of candy, and a woman offered a jar of homemade raspberry syrup.
Cessilye Williams, principal of Clark Middle School in Anchorage, brought 32 pupils to see Gray.
“Our students have been working diligently on National History Day projects,” she said. “Several students focused on the Tuskegee Airmen. Coming here was just incredible, because it brought history to life for our students—this person was one of those dynamic young men.”
Being part of a group that carved a key niche in civil rights and military history is “fascinating,” Gray said.
“The Tuskegee Airmen were the cream of the crop of black youth,” he said. “I’m very proud to be one of them.”