Filed Under:  Columns, Opinion

Red Tails in the sunset

30th September 2013   ·   0 Comments

By Fr. Jerome LeDoux
Contributing Columnist

Shifting restlessly in his hospital bed, Claude Platte asked his wife Erma, “Why don’t you get up in this bed with me and hold my hand as you always do all night?”

“Well, we are here in the hospital and the doctors and nurses would not like that.”

Erma grinned broadly while she told vignettes of her beloved Claude as he lay there helpless and hovering between life and death. His very empathetic nurse had just completed the removal of all tubes except his oxygen and IV. As Claude moaned whenever a tube was a bit painful to remove, his sensitive nurse kept repeating, “Oh, I’m sorry! I’m so sorry!”

The staff were very uncertain as to whether Claude would survive the removal of most of the tubes, but that he did somewhat handily. Within hours they were able to transfer him to Baylor Hospice on the third floor in order to stabilize him. In a couple of days, Claude was wide awake, smiling and nodding to all visitors. He is quiet, but one tough cookie.

Just 2½ blocks from the birthplace of Dwight D. Eisenhower, Claude’s birth and growth in Denton, Texas took on their own historical significance alongside that of his more stellar fellow Texan and contemporary military career man. His humble origins belied his great quest to reach for the sky through learning and teaching aviation science.

When Claude was still a child, his parents moved to Fort Worth. This brought about his introduction to Our Mother of Mercy Elementary School and likewise Our Mother of Mercy Catholic Church where he became one of the first to serve at the altar.

The first of three children, Claude graduated from the prestigious I.M. Terrell High School. His desire to fly was fed when political pressure challenged the government to expand the role of blacks in the military. The Army Air Corps was the first agency to accept.

Tuskegee Institute, a small black Alabama college, was chosen to host the “Military Experiment” to train black pilots and support staff. With a strong desire to serve the United States of America to the best of their ability, young blacks came from all over, especially New York City, Washington, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Chicago and Detroit.

Those who possessed the physical and mental qualifications were accepted as aviation cadets to be trained initially as single-engine pilots and later to be either twin-engine pilots, navigators or bombardiers. Most were college graduates or undergraduates. Others demonstrated their qualifications through comprehensive entrance examinations. With a B.S. major in Mechanical Engineering and a minor in Aeronautics, Claude had all the tools.

There at Tuskegee in Alabama, he went through the paces of the “Tuskegee Experience” where he received the Flight Instructor rating. This rating cleared him to train cadets and to fly dignitaries around the country to exciting places such as Bethune College where legendary educator Mary McLeod Bethune was officiating a graduation at her school.

As a primary flight instructor, Capt. Platte trained over 400 Blacks to solo and fly PT-13s, PT-17s and PT-19s. Among his most distinguished students were William Broadwater, Col. George Boyd PhD and Texan Norman Scales, Jr., who flew 70 missions over enemy territories, thereby earning the Distinguished Flying Cross and Certificate of Valor.

During World War II, segregation was the carte du jour in the U.S. Army with no respect for the Negroes who put their lives on the line for their country. Yet, white bomber pilots did not want any but the Negro pilots of the Tuskegee 332nd Fighter Group – The Red Tails – to escort them on their missions whenever that bomber escort group was available.

Those white bomber pilots did not care what color the Tuskegee 332nd Fighter Group was. All they knew was that the bombers escorted by that group always returned home to fly another mission some other day. No other escort group had such an amazing record.

Captain Claude Platte broke racial and educational barriers in the military as the first Black officer to be trained and commissioned in the newly-reopened Air Force Pilot Training Program at Randolph Field AFB, Texas, the West Point of the Air Force.

On any given day or weekend, Claude and Erma may be missing in action from church because he is called to represent the Tuskegee Airmen all over the country. Inevitably, approaching the podium, Erma’s forwardness and aggressiveness complement Claude’s shyness and reluctance to talk about himself and his accomplishments.

This article originally published in the September 30, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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