JOINT BASE CHARLESTON, S.C. --
The faint sounds of an elderly man telling a story from an era long gone filled the 16th Airlift Squadron auditorium, Nov. 2, 2012 at Joint Base Charleston - Air Base, S.C..
Retired Lt. Col. Hiram Mann, a former P-51D Mustang fighter pilot with the 332nd Fighter Group during World War II, sat in his wheelchair holding a microphone telling his story, his story of being a Tuskegee Airman.
"This is really a treat," said Lt. Col. Stewart Newton, 16th AS commander. "We are in the presence of a legend. I am completely in awe."
After a brief introduction and a short video, which displayed pictures of Tuskegee Airmen and their aircraft, Mann, sitting in his wheelchair, was lifted on stage and handed a microphone.
"The first thing I would like to relay to all of you is the original definition of a Tuskegee Airman," said Mann. "An original Tuskegee Airman, which I was not consulted on, is any male or female, black or white, military or civilian who served at Tuskegee Airfield between 1941 and 1949."
Mann went on to explain that the term Tuskegee Airmen was not used while he served as a fighter pilot.
"The term Tuskegee Airmen actually was not coined until 1972," said Mann. "Some say 27 years after World War II, but I say 27 years too late."
Before Mann could even fly, he had to apply for a commission and that would be no easy task for him.
"The first time I applied for a commission I was sent a rejection letter with a very distinct answer of why I would not be able to serve as a pilot," said Mann. "The letter stated there were no facilities to train Negros, so I went back to being a bell hop - fat, dumb and happy."
Mann would have to apply two more times before receiving an acceptance letter.
"I learned a lot from the rejection letters," said Mann. "I learned that I was going to have to fight tooth and nail for the ability to defend my country as a fighter pilot."
Mann first gained interest in flight when he was very young. He made a small model of an airplane out of balsa wood and flew it around his backyard all day long.
"When Lindberg made his historic flight across the Atlantic, I read the newspapers and knew that being a pilot was what I wanted to do," said Mann. "The first time I touched an aircraft was when I joined the military and was in training at Tuskegee Airfield."
Mann and all other African American pilots were required to train at Tuskegee Airfield during World War II.
"Our instructors were white," said Mann. "They (instructors) would hassle us just for being black and would use the excuse that they were preparing us for the stress of war. Fortunately my instructor went easier on our group."
When Mann and his fellow African-American pilots were finished with training, they were given their wings.
"As I'm sure all of my fellow pilots in the room know, wearing the silver wings is something not to be taken lightly," said Mann. "Those wings are a coveted item - they gave me the ability to fly and that is what I loved to do."
Even though Mann was qualified to fly, his unit, the 332nd Fighter Group, was only tasked with reconnaissance missions.
"At first, only the white pilots were allowed to fly combat missions," said Mann. "Rumors were spread discrediting African-American pilots."
The rumors ranged from such falsehoods as African-American pilots get scared easier during war or that they were less intelligent and less capable of operating aircraft technology.
"Our unit was almost shut down and disbanded, but our unit leadership fought for us and we even were given the chance to fly combat missions finally," said Mann.
Mann and his fellow 332nd FG pilots would escort bomber groups over Germany and other parts of Europe during World War II.
"We flew with the bombers to the target then just before they would drop the bombs we broke away," said Mann. "Once the bombers had released all of their bombs we would escort them back to the base."
During the course of the war, the Tuskegee Airmen proved to be excellent fighter pilots and even earned the respect of those bomber pilots they were escorting.
"Whenever we would run into the bomber pilots we had escorted, they would say thank you and show us appreciation for getting them there and back safe," said Mann.
After World War II, Mann would continue to serve in the Air Force, flying several different aircraft and eventually retiring his wings to a desk job at the Air Force Academy.
"When it was time to stop flying, I was assigned to the Air Force Academy where I was the admissions counselor," said Mann. "Besides flying, that was probably one of my favorite duties in the Air Force."
Mann retired as a lieutenant colonel and spent many of his later years telling his story of perseverance and hard work in the military at a time when African-American males were not allowed to fly.
During a question and answer session immediately following Mann's comments, Chief Master Sgt. Robert Scarlett, 437th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron superintendent, asked Mann about his relationship with his ground crew.
Mann thought for a moment and then responded.
"Well I think our relationships were good," said Mann. "Because if they weren't, then it could be very bad - I mean the man fixing your plane should be your friend," said Mann jokingly.
When the questions were over Mann ended with one last remark.
"If I could give any advice to the young Airmen in today's Air Force it would have to be to never give up on a dream," said Mann. "If you believe you can do something and someone tells you no, just keep working hard and you can achieve that dream."
During the past two years, the 16th AS has had the pleasure of hearing first-hand from Tuskegee Airmen about the struggles they faced while chasing their dream of defending their country through the air.
Last year, retired Lt. Edward Gibson, a B25 Bomber with the 477th Bombardment Group in WW II, told his story to the Airman. Gibson past away in July of this year.
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