Birmingham--It happened more than 60 years ago, but Tuskegee Airman Captain Richard Macon remembers it clearly. He was flying his P-51 fighter plane, escorting bombers over a German radar station.
"They had a wall of fire - a wall of fire of that many bullets at one time. If you fly through there you get the same thing that a child gets trying to run through a stream of water. My plane was hit and the right wing was shot off."
Macon's plane went down, he was captured and spent nine months and seven days as a prisoner of war. But, Macon says, he never - never he says - lost a bomber to enemy fire and neither did his fellow Tuskegee airmen.
"I am positive that we did not see a bomber that we were escorting get shot down by a fighter than belonged to the germans."
But William Holton, the historian of Tuskegee Airmen Inc., says Air Force records show that enemy planes did shoot down at least a few bombers escorted by the red-tailed fighters of the Tuskegee Airmen. His story is backed up Daniel Haulman of the Air Force Historical Research Agency at Maxwell-Gunter Air Force Base in Montgomery. They cite one mission report that on July 26, 1944 "1 B-24 seen spiraling out of formation in T/A (target area) after attack by E/A (enemy aircraft). No chutes seen to open." Another report on September 12, 1944 also suggests a bomber, under Tuskegee Airmen escort, went down.
But with up to 1,500 flying in the skies, Captain Macon says it would have been nearly impossible for someone on the ground the correctly identify whether a bomber that went down was one of the 50 or so his crew was protecting.
At the Southern Museum of Flight in Birmingham, executive director Jim Griffin has spent countless hours working with airmen, including Captain Macon, to create what will be one of the most elaborate Tuskegee Airmen exhibits in the country. Accuracy is a priority, even down to the smallest detail.
The Maxwell-Gunter Air Force Base is also collaborating on the project, and Griffin says he's got a lot of faith in the research coming out of that operation. And that means he can't discount the conclusion that the Tuskegee airmen may have lost bombers to enemy fire. Still, even if Tuskegee airmen lost a couple of bombers Griffin says it doesn't diminish their accomplishment.
"These were valiant historic men who stood up for our country during the second world war at a time when we needed good pilots, we needed competent pilots and they proved to the world that they were equal to the very best pilots in the world."
Of the original nearly 1,000 Tuskegee pilots, only about 200 are alive today and they are in their mid to late 80s.
-- Tanya Ott, December 13, 2006