“An American Hero”
The story of Lee A. Archer
I first met Lee A. Archer in September of 1952. He was a Captain in the US Air Force and Professor of Air Science at New York University. Our instructor for Navigation and Air Tactics took his place at the head of the class and wondered which of us would make it through or fall by the wayside. We in turn stared admiringly at the pilot’s ‘wings’ and decorations on his chest. You could sense immediately that this was no ordinary officer. He had what is known as a ‘command presence’.
In 1952 there were not too many people who were privy to the Tuskegee Experiment that took place during WWII. There was a prior Tuskegee Experiment that took place years earlier, in which indigent blacks were injected with the syphilis virus to see what the effect would be and if there was a cure. The earlier of these two experiments is a whole other story unto itself. Most people never heard of Tuskegee and knew nothing of either experiment. Lee A. Archer was a product of the second of the Tuskegee Experiments. This is his story.
In 1940 President Franklin Delano Roosevelt gave in to the black press and asked Congress to authorize the establishment of an Army Air Corp Pursuit Squadron exclusively for blacks or as they were referred to at that time, colored. Why a Pursuit Squadron (later changed to Fighter Squadron)? Because a Pursuit or Fighter aircraft has a crew of only one, the pilot, and as a result would not require any integration. Even the ground crew members which could be as many as three hundred per squadron were to be all black or colored. This was indeed an ‘experiment’ that everyone thought would fail.
The first class of cadets was formed in 1941, prior to the entrance of the US in WWII. There were thirteen applicants, of which five completed the intensive training and graduated as pilots and 2nd Lieutenants in the Army Air Corp, all except ‘one’. That ‘one’ was Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., who was already a 2nd Lieutenant, having previously graduated from West Point in 1936. During his four years at West Point he was totally segregated by having his own room and was also subjected to the silent treatment by all of his classmates which meant that he was never spoken to unless he was given a specific order.
Since Davis was the senior officer of the first class of US Army Air Corp pilots, as well as being a West Point graduate, he was made the commanding officer of the newly activated 99th Pursuit Squadron and promoted to Captain. Because of the racial discrimination and prejudice that was prevalent at that time, all of their training took place at the Tuskegee Army Air Field, an adjunct to Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama, a segregated base in the middle of the deep south, complete with separate drinking fountains and other facilities for white personnel and blacks.
So far, the experiment did not fail. Over the coming months, additional graduate pilots brought the 99th Fighter Squadron up to full strength at which time they expected to receive orders to be transferred overseas. The powers that be were not yet ready for that and so the 99th had no choice but to wait until that time came and to continue their training. In April of 1943 they finally received their orders to go overseas, at which time Captain Davis was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel, as befitting the CO of a front line Fighter Squadron.
To any fighter pilot, the most important thing is the number of victories he or she can achieve. I say ‘she’ because during WWII the Soviet Union had two squadrons of female fighter pilots and today in our own country we now have female fighter pilots in the Air Force and the Navy. It was the objective of the 99th to obtain these victories but because of the prevailing attitudes the 99th was intentionally kept out of harms way, thereby limiting the opportunities to achieve victories. Finally, at the end of June, 1943, while escorting B-25 Bombers on a raid over Sicily, Lt. Charles B. Hall scored the first victory for the 99th by downing an FW-190.
In spite of this first victory the hierarchy of the US Army Air Corp still sought to assign the 99th to such duties as coastal patrol and inferred that they were not only inexperienced but also lacked the resoluteness required of a fighter pilot. Pushing segregation to the extreme, while assigned to all-white units, the pilots of the 99th had to take off in opposite direction of the white pilots and could meet up only when in the air.
Due to the continual success of graduating more and more black or colored pilots, Lt. Col. Davis was ordered back to the US to oversee the training of the newly activated 332nd Fighter Group, comprising the 100th, 301st and 302nd Fighter Squadrons.
Lee A. Archer, 2nd Lt., was one of the pilots of the 302nd Fighter Squadron.
TO BE CONTINUED NEXT WEEK.