As the nation commemorates Black History Month, here are three airmen who have followed in the footsteps of Black aviators who came before them, and who recently flew a mission together to celebrate the achievements of African American airmen.
U.S. Air Force Capt. John Lewis Elliott
U.S. Air Force Capt. John Lewis Elliott, a KC-135 Stratotanker pilot assigned to the 50th Air Refueling Squadron, first dreamed of becoming a pilot beginning at 12 years old, when he learned of the legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen, a group of primarily African American military pilots and airmen who fought in World War II. As the Tuskegee Airmen fought on the front lines overseas, they helped advance the civil rights movement back home and went on to become one of the most respected and lauded war heroes of their time.
“After learning of the Tuskegee Airmen and their legacy of excellence and perseverance in the face of what seemed like unsurmountable obstacles, it only solidified that dream [of becoming a pilot],” John said.
“The legacy they left behind inspired me and influenced my decision to attend the illustrious Tuskegee University in Tuskegee, Alabama and join the Air Force ROTC program. Four years later, my dream was realized after earning a pilot slot and getting sent off for the next step, undergraduate pilot training.”
For John, Black History Month is a time to highlight the achievements of those who helped pave the way for him to realize his dream.
U.S. Air Force 2nd Lt. Bryan Lee
U.S. Air Force 2nd Lt. Bryan Lee, a KC-135 Stratotanker pilot assigned to the 63rd Air Refueling Squadron, first joined the Air Force as a boom operator, but even then, he knew he wanted to be a pilot.
Following six years of active-duty service, Bryan was accepted into pilot training school at an Air Force Reserves unit and after waiting three years for his active-duty contract to end, he began pilot training at Laughlin Air Force Base in 2020. As a former enlisted boom operator, Bryan expressed his gratitude for the opportunity to conduct this commemorative flight with his team.
U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Caleb Mills
U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Caleb Mills, a boom operator assigned to the 91st Air Refueling Squadron, says he’s proud to fly with the U.S. Air Force. As a boom operator, Caleb is responsible for in-flight refueling from one military aircraft to another during flight. He shared that he feels beyond thankful for the Black aviators who served before him and enabled him to have the opportunity.
A Tuskegee Airman’s USO Experience
The USO has been dedicated to serving all those who serve in the U.S. military – regardless of race – for its entire 80+ -year history.
The organization was founded before the U.S. Armed Forces were officially integrated, which meant that when the first USO brick-and-mortar locations were erected in November of 1941 in Fayetteville, North Carolina, the USO found itself amid the complex and daunting realities of both racial segregation and World War II.
Despite the challenging circumstances, the USO found ways to serve all men and women in uniform – including the one million Black soldiers – during World War II.
One Tuskegee Airman, Air Force Lt. Col. Enoch “Woody” Woodhouse – who celebrated his 96th birthday in January 2023 – recalled how he at times struggled to serve in World War II while still experiencing racism and segregation in service. But one place he could always turn to was the USO.
Enoch explained that the USO centers he visited during his service in World War II were some of the few places with no segregation.
“It was America: Black [and] white mixed,” he said. “If you were in uniform … you were welcomed.”
You can hear more about Enoch’s story here:
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