Local man serves as historian to Tuskegee Airmen legacy

WALTERBORO, SC (WCSC) - When the Tuskegee Airmen set foot on Walterboro army airfield in the summer of 1942, they already knew how to fly.

"Combat flying, formation flying, they learned gunnery, all the things that you would do in combat as a combat pilot," said historian Johnnie Thompson.

Thompson was not a Tuskegee Airmen, but he is a historian for an organization that preserves the legacy of the men. Thompson was about 12 years old when the black pilots arrived in his hometown for 90 days of intense training.

"It was so exciting to me to see a black person coming into town in uniform," said Thompson."I just had to have me one of those uniforms. And I just wanted to join the military service."

And he did, serving 20 years in the army before retiring. Thompson is elated that the story of the airmen will be told on the big screen.

"I'm excited about anything that enhances the legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen. This is a piece of history that we should never let die," Thompson said.

The mission of the black pilots, navigators and bombadiers was to escort and protect white bombers during World War II. They painted the nose and tails of their planes red, hence the nickname Red Tails. They became the escort of choice for bombers heading out to battle.

But long before the Red Tails got to fight the enemy, they had to fight their own country, for the privilege to fly and serve.

"They were told that they didn't have the brains to or they weren't courageous enough to engage the enemy in mortal combat, that they would turn tail and turn and run," Thompson said.

A memorial to the Tuskegee Airmen stands on a portion of the old Walterboro army airfield.  The face featured on the bust is of Roscoe Brown. He is reportedly the first Tuskegee Airman to shoot down a German jet and got his training in Walterboro.

Brown served as a consultant for the movie Red Tails, helping the stars to understand the crucial role he and his colleagues played in history.

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