March 1, 2005
By Phil Scott
Alexander Jefferson was a graduate of Clark University in Atlanta when World War II came. Drafted black men served in the quartermasters' corps — a dirty, filthy buck-private job paying $21 a month. Blacks with college degrees who volunteered could sign up for pilot training, and earn $75 a month "with your own room, and you got to sit at a table with a white table- cloth," Jefferson says. "A hell of a difference." In Tuskegee, Alabama, Jefferson learned to fly Vultee Vibrators, Stearmans, and AT-6s. Commissioned as a second lieutenant, he was sent to Selfridge Air Force Base outside Detroit, transitioned to the P-39, sent south to South Carolina, and then shipped over to Italy as a replacement pilot.
Jefferson's unit, the 301st Fighter Squadron, in P-51 Mustangs with tails painted red, flew cover for heavy bombers headed into Germany. After 18 escort missions he received his first ground attack assignment: strafing a radar station near Toulon, France. "One and Three got through; Two and Four got shot down," he says. "I was number Four." A shell blasted through his cockpit and out the canopy, buckling the airframe. He rolled the Mustang over on its side and parachuted out, landing in a group of German soldiers. They put Jefferson on a train headed to Stalag Luft 3 in Poland. "When I got there, in September 1944, I was the fourth black," he says. "And there were 5,000 American officers in camp."
When the Russians reached Poland, the Germans marched the prisoners out of camp. Eighty kilometers later the Germans loaded them into cattle cars and let them off near Munich, where Patton's Third Army liberated them in April 1945. Jefferson liberated a Jeep and followed the stench to Dachau, where the ovens were still warm from the Nazi's attempt at racial purity. "Man's inhumanity to man," he says.
"I was treated with all the rights and privileges of an American officer," Jefferson says. "There was no racial thing." He received the same warm clothes from the American Red Cross as the rest of the POWs, and the same bare rations. After liberation, a C-47 flew him and his fellow prisoners to La Havre, where they took a ship that steamed to England and picked up more guys, and ultimately steamed back home, back to New York Harbor, past the Statue of Liberty, and up to a dock where soldiers stood at the bottom of the gangplank repeating, "Whites on the right, Negroes on the left."
"Back to segregation," Jefferson says.
He returned to Tuskegee and became an instrument instructor until the base closed, and then moved to Lockborne Air Force Base in Columbus, Ohio, and cashiered out. It was back to Detroit where he started teaching elementary science. After retiring in 1980, Jefferson has kept busy speaking and traveling and working with the local chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen. "Whoever wants to hear about World War II and the Tuskegee Airmen and black history," Jefferson says, "I'll tell them about it."
The Upwind Summer Scholarship Program, which gives high school students a chance to earn their private pilot certificate in the summer between their junior and senior year, is accepting applications for its 2015 scholarship.
If only one person had been helped, it all would have been worthwhile. But much more than that has been accomplished over the 25-year life of the National Gay Pilots Association, said its executive director.
A restaurant with a view of Los Angeles International Airport built as a tribute to aviation heroes is poised to land a new lease.
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