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Memorial Day Parade returns to D.C. with ‘Top Gun’ Tuskegee Airman

Once slighted, an African American veteran pilot is set to lead this year’s parade

James H. Harvey III, a member of the Tuskegee Airmen, will be the grand marshal of 2022 Memorial Day Parade in D.C. (U.S. Air Force)
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First Lt. James H. Harvey III was a pilot with the 332nd Fighter Group, the famed African American Tuskegee Airmen.

He had flown a host of American fighter planes, including an F-47 and F-51, though he was never in combat during World War II. Then, he and three buddies were selected to fly in the first “Top Gun” style gunnery competition hosted by the Air Force.

It was May 1949, outside Las Vegas. He was 25. And his team was piloting the old F-47 against teams in the propeller class flying newer F-51s and the even newer F-82s. The competition was intense. One F-82 crashed, killing the two men aboard.

Harvey’s team won the propeller competition and reportedly scored the most overall points, but didn’t get the credit for over four decades, the Air Force says.

On Monday, Harvey, now 98, is scheduled to be the grand marshal in Washington’s Memorial Day Parade, which returns in full to Constitution Avenue after a hiatus of two years because of the pandemic. Harvey said he was looking forward to the event, which pays tribute to members of the armed forces who have given their lives in service to the country on the nation’s traditional day of remembrance.

“What does the grand marshal do?” Harvey joked in a recent telephone interview.

Informed that he probably would sit in a car and wave, he laughed. “I thought … that too,” he said. “But I had some doubt in my mind.”

The honor comes with the debut last week of the new aircraft action movie, “Top Gun: Maverick,” a sequel to the 1986 film about the Navy’s fighter weapons school, which was established in 1969.

The parade will feature, among other things, the U.S. Army band Pershing’s Own. It begins at 2 p.m. and goes along Constitution Avenue from Seventh Street to 17th Street.

“We are really proud to be back, after all we’ve gone through, as a city and country, and everything we’re still going through,” said Tim Holbert, senior vice president of the American Veterans Center, which puts on the parade. “We just really need shared events like this where we can all come together.

“This is one that we’re especially proud of. There are so many events and businesses and organizations that are gone from three years ago and aren’t coming back.”

The last live parade on Constitution Avenue was held in 2019.

It was a festive event that celebrated, among others, the African American women veterans of the Army’s 6888 Central Postal Directory — the “Six Triple Eight” — which sorted through warehouses in Britain filled with mail for soldiers in World War II.

The next year, because of the coronavirus pandemic, the parade was canceled at the last minute along with numerous other spring festivities in Washington.

The parade was also not held live in 2021, although a diminished version was staged for TV on the Mall with no crowds present.

But with the recent easing of the pandemic and many of its restrictions, organizers decided to hold the parade live again this year.

“The fact that we were able to bring the parade back, live on Constitution Avenue with the crowds, with the veterans … makes it” special this year, Holbert said.

Organizers said they are particularly excited to welcome Harvey, who retired from the Air Force as a lieutenant colonel and traveled from his home in Colorado to participate.

In 1949, the Air Force held the first gunnery competition at what was then Las Vegas Air Force Base, now Nellis Air Force Base. The best pilots in the Air Force were invited.

The competition consisted of aerial gunnery at 12,000 feet and 20,000 feet, skip bombing, rocket firing, panel strafing and dive bombing, according to the Air Force.

Harvey was then stationed at Lockbourne Air Force Base, near Columbus, Ohio. His team included Capt. Alva Temple, 1st Lt. Harry Stewart and 1st Lt. Halbert Alexander.

“Benjamin O. Davis Jr. was our Wing Commander and his departing remark to us was, ‘If you don’t win, don’t come home,’” Harvey told a Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum website. “He was joking, of course.”

“Our competing pilots laughed at us when we landed at Las Vegas Air Force Base because we were Black and we were flying the P-47,” the dated World War II fighter later known as the F-47, Harvey said. “We were the only active unit in the United States Air Force flying P-47 aircraft.”

“It was a nice airplane,” Harvey said in an interview. “It was big, and it was very heavy; weighed 4,000 pounds just sitting on the ground.”

“Thanks to the combined effort of everyone, we won the weapons meet,” he told the museum.

But the annual almanac published by the Air Force Association for many years listed the winner of the 1949 competition as “unknown,” he said. Finally, in 1993, the commander of the 332nd Fighter Group got the outfit listed as a 1949 winner, Harvey said.

And in January, the Air Force unveiled a plaque at Nellis Air Force Base that honors the men of the 332nd for their achievement at the competition:

1st place

Top Team Honors

USAF Fighter Gunnery Meet …