JOINT BASE MCGUIRE-DIX-LAKEHURST, N.J. – More than 60 Army Reserve soldiers attended a meet-and-greet here with a local member of the Second World War’s famed Tuskegee Airmen, Jan. 27.
Retired Tech. Sgt. George Watson Sr., a 91-year-old veteran who served in the African-American fighter group during World War II, shared his experiences and life lessons with the 411th Engineer Brigade soldiers, who are preparing for deployment in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.
“He is a true American hero, and he and his fellow Tuskegee Airmen overcame huge adversity to get into the fight,” said Brig. Gen. David L. Weeks, commanding general of the 411th Engineer Brigade. “Right now, every one of us are volunteers, every one of us wants to be here.”
Watson, who spent his childhood in Asbury Park, Neptune and Lakewood, volunteered for service in the Army in February 1942 at Fort Dix. He had originally planned on joining the Infantry but, to his surprise, was instead assigned to the Army Air Corps.
“Prior to World War II, there was prejudice,” he explained. “Negroes couldn’t get in the Air Corps.”
Watson, who received the Purple Heart Medal for wounds received in 1944 during a German air raid, explained that this restriction was largely the result of a 1925 study by the U.S. Army War College that found African-American Soldiers less-than-capable on the battlefield.
“They said we’re dumb, we panic under combat conditions, that negroes could never fly a technical thing like an aircraft,” Watson said of the study’s findings, which are summarized in the “Memorandum for the Chief of Staff regarding Employment of Negro Man Power in War, Nov. 10, 1925.”
These findings were challenged by both “the negro press and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People,” according to Watson. This pressure led to the formation of an African-American fighter group based at the Army’s flight-training area in Tuskegee, Ala., in 1941.
By all accounts, this “Tuskegee Experiment” was a success. The 450 Tuskegee pilots who served overseas flew more than 1,500 missions, destroying or disabling more than 400 enemy aircraft and safely escorting hundreds of U.S. bombers. The Airmen received three Distinguished Unit Citations, eight Purple Heart Medals, 14 Bronze Star Medals, 95 Distinguished Flying Crosses and 744 Air Medals.
While the Tuskegee Airmen unquestionably contributed to the overall military success of the Allied forces during World War II, their greatest achievement may have been in dispelling the myth that African Americans could not successfully serve their country in uniform. They, along with the other 50,000 African-American troops who saw combat during World War II, helped make it possible for President Harry S. Truman to end segregation in the military in 1948.
“I feel very proud to hear from him today,” said Master Sgt. Henry Mack, non-commissioned officer-in-charge of maintenance for the 411th Engineer Brigade. “I’m inspired by what he’s done”
“It was a privilege to hear from him, to hear from those who paved the way for us and made it possible for us to have the careers in the military and really support our country,” said 1st Lt. Nixon, Gessy, strength manager for the 411th Engineer Brigade.
“It makes me feel empowered and enlightened,” added Ms. Tangalayer Lowe, a civilian employee with the Army Reserve’s 99th Regional Support Command and sergeant in the 412th Theater Engineer Command.
In addition to their meet-and-greet with Watson, the 411th Engineer Brigade soldiers are scheduled to see “Red Tails,” executive producer George Lucas’ new film about the Tuskegee Airmen.
The 411th Engineer Brigade has a proud history spanning almost 80 years. It was first constituted as the 355th Engineer Regiment in 1921. During World War II, the Regiment saw action in the European Theater of Operations undertaking numerous bridging and mobility missions in Normandy, Northern France, the Rhineland and the Ardennes area. The Regiment was awarded the Meritorious Unit Commendation for service in World War II.
In 1948, the unit was reactivated, reorganized and redesignated as the 411th Engineer Brigade. The Brigade was again recalled to active duty in 1990 during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. It also provided engineer support to Operation Joint Endeavor/Guard by augmenting the 412th ENCOM staff and by the deployment of the 139th and 141st TC Detachments, which were under the Brigade’s peacetime command and control.