Pumping adrenaline as German planes roared in from behind his squadron in the skies above Anzio, Italy, the rookie pilot jettisoned his P-40 Warhawk's empty external fuel tank to gain speed. Bracing for his first dogfight, he failed to switch on the main fuel tank. A hand-me-down from the Flying Tigers, complete with Chinese writing in the cockpit, the plane's engine cut out.
Curtis Robinson was that pilot, one of about 1,000 Tuskegee Airmen, elite but segregated African-American pilots whose aerial exploits in World War II led to President Harry Truman's order to integrate the U.S. military. Fighting for their country and their race, the Airmen flew in the Mediterranean theater of operations. They completed 15,500 missions, destroyed more than 260 enemy aircraft, sank one enemy destroyer, and demolished numerous enemy installations. Legend holds that Airmen flying escort didn't lose a single allied bomber to enemy fire. To bomber crews they were known as the "Red-Tail Angels" for the markings on their planes' vertical stabilizer. To the German Luftwaffe, they were the "Black Bird Men."
Based in Alabama at Tuskegee Army Air Field, the Airmen were part of an experiment to test whether African-Americans could learn to fly and maintain sophisticated military aircraft. The first five pilots were trained in 1941. Robinson, who taught school for two years after earning a chemistry degree from Claflin College, was accepted into the rigorous program in 1942.
After 33 missions, including Anzio, Robinson was sent stateside in 1944 to be a flight instructor at Tuskegee. Two years later, he was discharged and took a government job in Washington, D.C., after airlines refused even to let Tuskegee Airmen fill out applications to become pilots. After his daughter was born with a heart defect, he became interested in pharmacy and used the G.I. Bill to earn a degree from Howard University School of Pharmacy in 1952.
After graduation, Robinson and a classmate bought a pharmacy in D.C., but the arrangement lasted only about six months, when the partner's wife protested the poor pay. "I paid myself $30 a week," Robinson said. "At that time chain pharmacists were making $75 a week. Back then, I had to make all the capsules, pills, and suppositories, and I mixed a lot of liquids. It was a lot of work."
Robinson eventually owned five pharmacies and a medical appliance store in D.C. Now 86, he still owns and manages a small apothecary in the Capitol Hill area serving mostly elderly patients. "The biggest challenge now is the insurance companies taking over," he said. "I don't enjoy pharmacy anymore. But my wife died in 2000, so the reason I continue to work is to get out and meet people."
Over the years, many honors have come Robinson's way, including the 2004 Bowl of Hygeia Award from the Washington, D.C., Pharmaceutical Association, a lifetime achievement award from Howard University School of Pharmacy, and induction into the Claflin University Hall of Fame. He was the first treasurer of Tuskegee Airmen Inc. and was among surviving Airmen who met with President Bush in 2005. He is also the subject of A Pilot's Journey, a book chronicling his life and his family's odyssey out of slavery from the 1700s. For more information, go to http://www.robnorpublishing.com/ or phone 1-(800) 598-7750.
Oh, and about that young pilot with the conked-out Warhawk? His training kicked in and he quickly flipped the switch to feed more fuel to the engine. Despite six blazing Browning machine guns, he didn't shoot down any Germans that day, but he had quite a tale to tell his two grandchildren. "Most dogfights lasted 30 seconds or so, but that one went on for 10 minutes," he said. "The squadron shot down five German planes that day, and we didn't lose a single one."
THE AUTHOR is a writer based in New Jersey.