By best estimate, there are some 200 original Tuskegee Airmen remaining out of the 994 who served with distinction in World War II. Why are they so difficult to locate? Many of them, like my own father—Major Eddie Lee Young—did not seek the limelight. He used to explain that in the heat of the battle, they were just ordinary men with a job to do. But what we do know is that those still living hold onto exceptional memories.
I witnessed this firsthand when I participated in a local community day where Tuskegee Airmen, Buffalo Soldiers, and other historical groups were invited to speak. I dragged Dad to my author talk. By the time I finished the presentation of my book, A Strong Right Arm: The Story of Mamie “Peanut” Johnson, I found Dad under a tent, shooting the breeze with the other Tuskegee Airmen. They swapped stories of what it was really like in those days, each one trying to outdo the other with their tales of valor and daring.
I knew at once that I was witnessing living history. I did what any seasoned writer would do. I reached in my writer’s toolbox and pulled out a set of listening ears. No camera. No taking notes. No lifting of a pen. There would be time for that later. I’ll never forget my father’s chilling description of the first time he flew solo. His flight instructor, Charles Herbert Flowers, Jr.—known as Tiger Flowers—was scarcely older than the college-aged cadets he trained, yet he trained 10% of the 994 pilots at Tuskegee Army Air Field. There is now a high school named after him in Prince George’s County, Maryland.