Tuskegee Airman Wilbur Mason gave history a face and a name Saturday as part of Youth Aviation Adventures day at the Cleveland Regional Jetport.
“I am what you call an original Tuskegee,” the 88-year-old said.
Mason said there were 14,000 to 16,000 people associated with the Tuskegee Airmen training base in Tuskegee, Ala.
“The definition for an original Tuskegee Airman is you had to be associated with this program from 1941 through 1949. If you were a civilian or in the military, if you were male or female, if you were white or black, you were considered a part of the Tuskegee Airmen,” Mason said.
Mason was a civilian.
“I was born and reared in Tuskegee. At the time the base was being built, I was in my youth,” Mason said
When the training base for what would become the Tuskegee Airmen pilots was completed, Mason was in high school.
“I was just a kid on the block. Then when I graduated from high school, I applied and got a job …in what was known as base supply,” Mason said.
He said his role was to provide needed parts and supplies for aircraft repairs.
“We stored and issued supplies to mechanics that worked on the planes,” Mason said.
While he did not associate with the cadets at Tuskegee, he watched them walk in and out of the mess hall across from the building in which he worked.
He worked on the base from 1944 to 1947 when the base closed.
Of the original Tuskegee Airmen, only 992 were actually pilots, 450 of these were deployed overseas.
During the war, 66 of the pilots lost their lives, and 34 became prisoners of war.
The squadron remained largely segregated from the other squadrons.
“When they went overseas, they had to be in a separate base. There were only Afro-Americans at this base,” Mason said.
At first, transportation was mostly what the group provided.
The Americans began losing troops because of the bombers that were getting shot down.
“If a bomber gets shot down with 10 men in it, you are losing quite a lot of man power and airplanes,” Mason said.
To remedy the problem, a general asked the Tuskegee Airmen leader if he thought they could help.
The leader answered they could but they would need faster planes. He said the planes they had were not fast enough to keep up with the Germans.
The squadron was given P-51s.
“The P-51 I guess was the Cadillac of this period, until the jet came along and kind of took their place,” Mason said.
The pilots proved they were a part of the solution by going on to have on of the highest kill ratios over Germany in World War II.
“The Tuskegee Airmen were fighting for integration and desegregation long before Martin Luther King and this civil rights movement got going,” Mason said.
“We feel the Tuskegee Airmen were very instrumental in President [Harry S.] Truman giving his order … which integrated the armed services in the United States. This was a milestone in American history.”
Two of the Airmen went on to be four-star generals.
“In 2007, we were given the Congressional Gold Medal in Washington,” Mason said. “This was a milestone for our organization because we hadn’t received much recognition.”
Mason encouraged the students present to follow the Tuskegee Airmen’s motto of “Failure is not an option.”
He encouraged them to make good choices and study hard to do well and be successful.
“If the Tuskegee Airmen could make it and accomplish in their day and time and under the conditions that they had to do, you should have no problem making it today,” Mason said.
He said there are many who have paved the way for the African-Americans of today.
He said students need to make good decisions when it comes to choosing their friends. He encouraged them to have friends who want to make something with their life.
“The doors are open, but the youth need to make the decision of what you want to do and what you want to be,” Mason said.
He said it was important to set goals and persevere to reach them.