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73 years after winning first ‘Top Gun’ competition, Black pilots are honored

Pilots of the 332nd Fighter Wing who won first place for propeller-driven aircraft in a fighter gunnery meet held in Las Vegas. From left, Capt. Alva Temple, 1st Lt. James Harvey III, 1st. Lt. Harry Stewart and alternate 1st Lt. Halbert Alexander. (U.S. Air Force)
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In the spring of 1949, the 332nd Fighter Group — the unit of the Tuskegee Airmen — was in Las Vegas for the inaugural Continental Air Gunnery Meet, the U.S. Air Force equivalent of the U.S. Navy’s “Top Gun” school, which would be started 20 years later.

This all-Black fighter and bomber group, which trained in Tuskegee, Ala., was one of the most decorated squadrons in the segregated military during World War II. After working day and night to keep the 332nd planes flying during the competition, a few members of the ground crew decided to blow off steam at the famous Flamingo Hotel. They didn’t get far. Security guards intercepted the men as they entered and ordered them to leave. The casino was for “Whites only,” they were told.

That type of treatment was not unusual in 1949. Many places across the country denied entry to Black servicemen even though they had put their lives on the line for their country in World War II.

For 1st Lt. Harry Stewart — who flew a P-51 Mustang and scored three aerial “kills” against German planes in the war — and the rest of the pilots of the 332nd’s team that year, the first gunnery meet was a chance to prove themselves against other Air Force aces. Their mission was to disprove the widespread belief the Black aviators were not as good as White ones.

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“Having gone into the service under segregated conditions, we would hear statements like, ‘These guys really don’t know how to fly’ or ‘They’re not mentally equipped to do this,’ ” said Stewart, now 97, in an interview from his home in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. “This was a chance for us to show what we could do among the best of the best.”

They would do just that. These Tuskegee Airmen — Stewart, Capt. Alva Temple, 1st Lt. James Harvey III and alternate 1st Lt. Halbert Alexander — would soar to victory, defeating teams from other Air Force fighter groups to claim the first trophy in the propeller class. They led the way in scoring for aerial gunnery, skip and dive bombing, strafing, and rocket firing at the meet, which also included a separate competition for jet fighter groups.

However, their accomplishment would be lost to time — either accidentally or through intentional oversight — for seven decades. While the jet winners, the 4th Fighter Group, were listed in Air Force almanacs, the propeller winners of the first competition were listed as “unknown.”

That omission was corrected this month when a plaque naming the four Black pilots was installed at the U.S. Air Force Weapons School at Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas. It acknowledges their accomplishment of earning “Top Team Honors” at the fighter gunnery meet in 1949.

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On hand for the presentation Jan. 11 was Harvey, who had pressed the Air Force to honor his team’s victory. He was assisted in the effort by Wish of a Lifetime, a project of AARP.

“We weren’t supposed to be able to fly aircraft, we weren’t supposed to be able to win this competition, but we did and we were the best,” Harvey said in a statement released by the Air Force after the ceremony.

Part of the confusion over the lack of recognition had to do with a missing trophy. The original silver cup used for the 1949 and 1950 competitions included the names of all winners, but then it disappeared. For 55 years, its whereabouts were unknown.

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In 2005, researcher and historian Zellie Rainey Orr was able to locate the trophy. She was trying to honor a Tuskegee airman from her hometown of Indianola, Miss., when she learned about the missing award. It was in storage at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton, Ohio.

“I made a few calls and found it in a box at the museum,” she said in an interview. “It took a lot longer to have the Air Force display the trophy after they realized what they had.”

Orr later recalled her odyssey in locating the award and getting it exhibited in the 2011 book “Heroes in War, Heroes at Home: First Top Guns.”

For Harry Stewart, who received an honorable discharge in 1950 and later retired from the reserves as a lieutenant colonel, being honored at last as part of the first class of “Top Gun” pilots in the Air Force is a thrill. He recalls flying the F-47N — a later version of the P-47 Thunderbolt, one of the most successful fighter planes in World War II — in the competition and helping his team outscore the other fighter groups using F-51s, the reconfigured Mustang, and F-82s, the unique “twin” Mustang.

Stewart also remembers the celebration after his team was judged to be the Air Force’s premier fighter pilots. He and his fellow pilots had their photo taken with the trophy bearing their names at an awards banquet — held at the Flamingo Hotel. This time, there were no security guards preventing them from entering.

“I’m very grateful and feel very good the Air Force is recognizing our accomplishment,” said Stewart, who published “Soaring to Glory: A Tuskegee Airman’s Firsthand Account of World War II” with Philip Handleman in 2019. “It gives me a great deal of satisfaction to have the country and the world know that the abilities and performance of the Tuskegee Airmen was among the best of the best.”

correction

An earlier version of this article stated that the trophy's whereabouts were unknown for 43 years. In fact, they were unknown for 55 years. This version has been corrected.

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