Tuskegee airman coming to Vicksburg

Published 12:00 am Monday, February 2, 2009

Retired Lt. Col. Leo R. Gray took up an offer last week to pilot a P-51 Mustang fighter aircraft from Fort Myers to Boca Raton, Fla. He had often flown the same model aircraft in World War II as a Tuskegee Airman — a group of 932 men who were trained as the first black pilots in the Army Air Corps — and had not flown one since 1945.

“It was quite a trip,” the 85-year-old said with a laugh, noting tourists and history buffs pay upwards of $2,200 per half hour to take flight in the vintage planes. “That was a real treat, and it brought back a lot of memories.”

Gray will recount some of those memories in Vicksburg on Saturday at a black history program titled, A Story of an Original Tuskegee Airman Pilot, presented by the 412th Engineer Command. The program will begin at 10:30 a.m. in Building 1006 of the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center. Admission is free, but seating is limited to 200 and reservations can be made by calling 601-631-6123. 

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“We knew that we were pioneering, but the system was so rigid — they were so reluctant to accept us — that we just had to bide our time,” he said. “A lot of people thought we shouldn’t be doing it, but we felt that it was our country, too. It was tough road to hoe. You had to keep your nose to the grindstone, but we managed to persevere and show them we could do the job.”

When Gray enlisted in the Army after graduating from high school in 1942 he had never driven a car, let alone flown a plane. He said he really had no interest in becoming a pilot, but eventually decided to volunteer for pilot training because he had even less interest in the options available to blacks in the military at the time.

“Back in those days, blacks generally went into the Army as a laborer or into the Navy as a steward. I didn’t want to do that kind of work, and I just thought, well, if I could become a pilot I could be somebody,” he said.

Gray was a part of one of the last groups of Tuskegee Airmen to join the war effort in Europe. He arrived in Italy in March 1945, and would fly a total of 15 missions through the end of the war with the 100th Fighter Squadron.

A Boston native, he left the Army a year after returning from the war, but his service didn’t exclude him from enduring the strain of strict segregation enforced in the country. Despite the struggles, he would eventually get a degree in agricultural economics from the University of Massachusetts, receive a master’s degree in Nebraska and embark on a career working for such institutions as the University of Massachusetts, the Western Agriculture Economics Institution and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“I went to work with the department of agriculture in 1954, and they still had segregated facilities that hadn’t fully broken down in Washington,  D.C.,” he recalled. “Traveling around the country, you didn’t know what was going to be open to you and what was going to be closed.”

Gray was recently included in the “Who’s Who In America, 101 Top Industrial Experts,” published in October. Despite his civilian accomplishments, he considers his greatest achievement as a member of the Tuskegee Airmen.

“Being a Tuskegee Airman was probably the best thing that ever happened to me, although I had never really aspired to become one,” Gray said. “I was just at the right place at the right time to step up to the plate when the opportunity was presented to me.”

Although Gray said the story of the Tuskegee Airmen did not receive much attention until the 1980s, they have since been bestowed with several honors and distinctions for their barrier-breaking service. Most recently, Gray was among 72 Tuskegee Airmen to receive an honorary doctorate degree from Tuskegee University in 2006. In 2007, Gray joined about 350 airmen and their widows in collectively receiving the Congressional Gold Medal from President George Bush.

He was also among a group of Tuskegee Airmen invited to witness the inauguration of President Barack Obama in January. He described the experience as “exhilarating” and “almost unbelievable,” but said if the Tuskegee Airmen played a role in leading to the election of the country’s first black president they didn’t know it while they served. 

“We weren’t doing it so a black man could become president or anything like that. We were just doing it for our country,” he said. “I think you have to take it one step at a time for the barriers to be broken down. Things have opened up for some people, but a lot of folks still have problems. You’re still going to have to pay your dues — no matter what your color is — if you want to succeed.”

Of the 932 men who completed advanced pilot training at the Tuskegee Army Air Field from 1941 to 1945, 404 served overseas during World War II, 398 flew combat missions, 178 were killed in the line of duty and 34 were prisoners of war.


Contact Steve Sanoski at ssanoski@vicksburgpost.com.