Precinct 333

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

In Memory Of A Nameless Hero

It may sound funny coming from a middle-aged white guy, but some of my greatest heroes growing up were the Tuskegee Airmen.

I owe my existence to one unknown African-American fighter pilot of a past era.

Blame it on my dad, a Navy officer who made clear to me at a young age that the qualities he and my mother sought to instill in me are not limited to people who look like me. And one of the prime examples he held up for me were those men who performed such great deeds in their planes. It is why I wept before the Super Bowl, as some of the last of them walked and rolled on to that field. And it is why I wept again today, as I read First Lt. Jennifer Miller’s commentary in today’s St. Louis Post Dispatch. She has a special connection to that elite group of African-American pilots, military pioneers who proived that plack men could do anything a white man could do -- maybe even better than a white man could do it.

When I was little, my family and I took a weekend trip to Dover, Del., to visit my father who was on Army Reserve duty that summer. During our trip, we visited a hanger at Dover Air Force Base where a group of veterans were rebuilding a vintage B-17G from World War II called the "Shoo Shoo Shoo Baby." That July morning, I watched my grandfather stand motionless in front of that Flying Fortress. He had not seen one for at least 40 years.

Looking closely, I thought I saw a tear on my grandfather's cheek, and - as only a child could - I asked, "What's the matter, Poppy Arnold?" We sat down on a nearby bench, and he told me this story.

It’s one of those stories remarkable not for the unusual heroism it conveys. Rather, it leaps out at me because the heroism was so ordinary, so commonplace. Such heroism is the everyday currency of those in combat. And so it was that Lt. Arnold Bernfeld, a 22-year-old bombardier in the 8th Air Force's 509th Bombardment Squadron, 351st Bomb Group, found himself and his B-17 in the sights of a German fighter. It was a situation likely to have only one outcome. The only question was whether or not the bombs in the belly of the plane would be delivered before the crew met their end.

Suddenly, the German fighter disintegrated in a fireball before his very eyes. My grandfather announced "Bombs away," the pilot regained control of the plane, and the group headed back to England. As my grandfather looked out the nose of the plane, he saw an American fighter plane with a red tail. My grandfather distinctly remembered the pilot, who had shot down the German fighter, looking towards his bomber and saluting. He never forgot the black face of that pilot who saved his life that day, along with the lives of the other nine members of his crew.

That was the job of the Tuskegee Airmen. Their duty was to protect the men and planes who rained death and destruction down on the enemies of America. They did it well – so well, in fact, that the 332nd Fighter Group never lost a bomber under their care. They were truly the best of the best, and they proved their skills many times over. Sixty-six of their number died in combat, and another thirty-two were held as prisoners of war after being shot down. Rarely in the history of air combat has their like been seen.


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