Lewis Lynch celebrated his 20th birthday — Oct. 4, 1942 — by applying to train as one of the first black pilots in the old Army Air Corps.
He was rejected, receiving a form letter that said he was “too tall” to be a fighter pilot because he exceeded the 5-foot-10-inch limit.
“I knew two friends who had been accepted who were taller than me,” he recalled Wednesday. “I wrote the officer and told him I thought they were using some kind of quota system.”
A friendly recruiter went to bat for him and got verbal permission to sign him up.
But soon after the Columbus, Ohio, native arrived in Tuskegee, Ala., for training, he was pulled from the class on the grounds he was “erroneously entered.”
Again, the excuse was height — despite the fact several classmates were taller, including Daniel “Chappie” James, who later became the first black four-star general in the Air Force.
But after Lynch’s mother wrote First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, he was put back in pilot training, graduated and went to war, flying 42 combat missions in Europe as one of the legendary Tuskegee Airmen.
Lynch spoke about the Tuskegee Airmen at Southwestern Illinois College on Wednesday as part of the college’s Community College Month activities.
Before showing a short documentary film of interviews of himself and other Tuskegee Airmen, Lynch explained how until the start of World War II, black men were relegated to menial jobs in the military.
“A 1925 Army War College study about soldiers in World War I stated that ‘Black men were physically unqualified for combat duty,’” he said. “We were denied the opportunity to enter pilot training or technical fields until 1941 when, under pressure from the NAACP, they started training at Tuskegee.”
The 99th Fighter Squadron and 322nd Fighter Group became famous for their distinctive red-tailed P-51 Mustang fighters and, when pulling escort duty, never lost an Allied bomber to enemy fighters.
The success of the Tuskegee Airmen led to President Harry Truman’s order in 1948 to desegregate the military.
Not that it was a smooth or quick transition — Lynch, who stayed in the Air Force after the war, said that when he first came to Scott Air Force Base in 1959, he had to house his wife and four children in substandard base housing.
“I couldn’t rent a house in Belleville, I couldn’t rent a house in Mascoutah,” he said. “I was told to go to East St. Louis or St. Louis.”
Lynch retired from the Air Force in 1964, then spent another 21 years as a civilian contract officer for the service. Today, he lives in University City, Mo.
In the early 1970s, veteran Tuskegee Airmen started contacting each other and planned a reunion that led to the formation of Tuskegee Airmen Inc.
Today, Tuskegee Airmen Inc. has a two-fold mission: to keep alive the history and legacy of the first black airmen and to encourage young black men and women to consider careers in aviation and aerospace.
Originally Published, April 13, 2000 Belleville News Democrat,
(c) 2000, Belleville News-Democrat, Belleville, Ill.
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