I never cease to be amazed by the little things we can learn while on the road if we just take the time to stop and check out the little roadside markers and obscure memorials dotting the country. Our nation’s history, whether good or bad, is documented by simple signs and monuments that many of us don’t even realize are there since we’re blasting by at 75 or 80 miles an hour.
My wife and I happened upon one of these such markers when we exited Interstate 95 in Walterboro, South Carolina for a gas and coffee stop on our way home from vacation. I noticed a sign pointing the way to the Tuskegee Airmen Memorial, and we decided to check it out since it wasn’t too far off the beaten path and we’d heard the stories and watched the movies related to the men of the 332nd Fighter Group. You can’t help but respect men that lived through such intense diversity and we wondered what this little town had to do with a troubled history of racism and bigotry that was eventually overcome by men with a great deal of dedication, determination, and mental toughness.
As it turns out, the small Walterboro Army Airfield was a training site for fighter and bomber crews just before heading overseas to combat, and the Tuskegee airmen were a part of this war effort. It was also the site of a camouflage school and a prisoner of war camp for German POW’s, which really surprised us considering that we thought POW’s would have stayed overseas rather than being brought in country. Nor did I figure anyone needed a school to tell them how to look like a shrub or a bunch of weeds. Obviously there must be more to it than just sticking a few twigs in your cap.
The 332nd and its tenant commands flew Curtiss P-40 Warhawks, Bell P-39 Aircobras, Republic P-47 Thunderbolts, and the ultimate fighter aircraft (in my humble opinion), the North American P-51 Mustang. The men of the 477th Bombardment Group flying the North American B-35 Mitchell, shouldn’t be forgotten since they trained at the same facility and fought against the same racism as the men in the 332nd, but they never actually saw combat operations according to the sites I’ve visited. Regardless of whether they saw combat or not, flying these machines by oneself, or as part of a larger crew took skill and coordination these men proved they were undeniably capable of.
The historic markers tell a story of hardship and division that was ultimately overcome by men with mental toughness that I can only dream to possess. They joined a military that didn’t think they were capable of performing the necessary skills, while fighting for, and next to men who believed they were second class citizens. They ultimately amassed a fighting record unsurpassed by the Caucasian squadrons, earning the respect of the bomber pilots they protected and the foreign enemy they fought. The HBO movie “The Tuskegee Airmen” is one of my favorites with a great cast and a well depicted version of true life events. Watch it if you get a chance!
Like I said in the beginning of this post, you never know what you’ll learn when you stop and read one of those roadside markers. They dot the landscape across the nation, serving to document our history and teach us about who we are and where we came from as a country. Be sure to stop and read a few when you get a chance. You might just be surprised at what you learn.
Brian “Beastman” Eastman