A native of Laurens County, Henderson became the first black from South Carolina to obtain a Commercial Pilot’s License, Aviation Ground Instructor rating, Flight Instructor rating and instrument rating.
Instrumental in breaking the race barrier in aviation, he was a pilot and Flight Instructor during World War II. He became an Army Air Corps Aviation Cadet Program Instructor at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. He trained about 20 cadets a year who entered aerial combat in the all Black 99th Pursuit Squadron in the European Theatre World War II. He served as commissioner for Columbia Owens Downtown Airport.
In 1991, he was named the South Carolina Aviator of the Year.
Ernest Henderson, Sr.
Flight Instructor and Educator
“From plow to plane” is an appropriate way to describe Ernest Henderson’s life. “I was plowing in the cotton field when I first saw an airplane,” he recalls. “I was fascinated by that flying machine.” That encounter as a child on a small farm in Laurens County left an impression. Ten years later, he became a pilot and flight instructor. Born in Mountville in 1917, Ernest Henderson, Sr. was educated in Laurens County in a wooden schoolhouse without running water, a chalkboard or desks. The school was not an adequate facility, but that did not prevent Henderson from learning.
Reflecting on his experience in the small wooden school, he says, “I was anxious to try to be the best in class.” He graduated with highest honors from Bell High School in Clinton and began undergraduate work at Hampton Institute in Virginia. There he was encouraged by the school’s president to go to Tuskegee Institute to take flying courses to qualify for the Army Air Corps. He entered Tuskegee determined to become a proficient pilot. He succeeded and joined the Army Air Corps Pilot/Flight Instructor Group. “We had the distinct privilege of flying with some people who became outstanding later on,” says Henderson. “We flew with the late General Daniel ‘Chappi’ James, Jr. , who became commander-in chief of the North American Air Defense Command, and with Lieutenant General Benjamin O. Daves. Jr., who was in command of the 99th Pursuit Squadron in Europe.”
Henderson became assistant squadron commander and was one of the pioneers in making aviation a reality for African-Americans in this country. Recently, Henderson was inducted into the South Carolina Aviation Hall of Fame. Henderson later completed his bachelor of science degree in commerce at Benedict College in Columbia. He then received his master’s degree at the University of Wisconsin and has also studied at South Carolina State University, the University of South Carolina and Duke University. “A good education is one of the most important keys to success in life. Regardless of the type of home or background from which you come, you can get an education and be successful if you just set your mind to it and work hard,” he says.
Henderson has worked as an educator and administrator in Richland County School District One for 21 years. He has been a classroom teacher, business manager and guidance counselor. He recently retired from the school system and now does volunteer work. “If I could go from plow to plane coming through my poorly equipped schools, you should be able to make greater accomplishments in your modern schools,” Henderson tells students.
“Go to school and stay in school and develop your capabilities to the very fullest. Use your time wisely in school. Develop good study habits and budget your time. Set high attainable goals in school and work hard to reach them. Then, with a good self-image, a determination to do your best and full confidence in yourself, success in life will be yours.”
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History of the 99th Fighter Squadron
by: CFF Member Dave McIntosh
photos: Courtesy of Ernest Henderson, Tuskegee Airman
In another, now fading era, men took to the skies over Europe to fight for and protect the freedoms that they themselves were denied and in the process became a legend and an inspiration to later generations. Ironically the men fighting a monstrous regime based upon racial superiority also had to battle racism back home and in the armed forces in which they served. The battles they fought across the seas would be one of the steps in proving to their fellow citizens that they deserved equal treatment back home. History recalls them as the Tuskegee Airmen.
To understand the battles they fought and the victories they won, not only against the enemy, but within the nation they served it helps to remember America as it was, a great nation fighting for freedom but still denying equality to some of its citizens. The Tuskegee Airmen would be part of what was called the “Tuskegee experiment.” An experiment to prove that people of all colors and backgrounds could fight under the same flag for the same goals and emerge victorious in the end.
As the United States prepared for war, segregation was the rule in the military and there were no Negroes (that was the term in those days) in the Army Air Crops. In 1940, however, through the efforts of President Franklin D. Roosevelt the Air Corps was directed to form a fighter unit comprised of black pilots. As a result of FDR’s order the 99th Pursuit Squadron was formed and a training program started at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. The cadets trained at what was called Tuskegee Army Air Field.
As part of the run-up toward American involvement in the Second World War the Army Air Corps made arrangements whereby civilian flying schools would provide primary flight training to supply the huge number of pilots who would needed. At that time the flight training program at Tuskegee was the only such program for aspiring black pilots.
Tuskegee Institute was chosen for a number of reasons including its historical association with the education of African-Americans. It was also decided to locate the training program for black pilots in the south for the same reason that most training programs were being located in the south and the west- good year-round weather for flying.
Training started in spring of 1941 with thirteen pilot candidates as well as enlisted men who would serve as ground crew. September 2, 1941 would go down in the books as a red-letter day when Captain Benjamin O. Davis, a West Point graduate, became the first African-American to solo as an Army Air Corps pilot.
The first five men to have the silver wings of the Army Air Force pinned on their chests were Benjamin O. Davis, George Roberts, , Charles BeBow, Jr., Mac Ross and Lemuel Custis. In March of 1942 the black pilots were inducted into the U.S. Army Air Corps in ceremonies on the airstrip at Tuskegee and later that month the 100th Fighter Squadron was formed as part of the 332nd Fighter Group.
After many months of waiting while higher ups in the Air Corps tried to decide how to use their newly minted black pilots, orders came through and on April 1, 1943 the men of the 99th Fighter Squadron prepared to leave for North Africa. At the end of May, 1943 the men of the 99th found themselves in Farjouna, Tunisia as part of the 33rd Fighter Group. A few days later men of the 99th flew their first mission. Flying Curtis P-40’s were Lieutenants William Campbell, Charles Hall, Clarence Jamison and James Wiley and in June, six of the 99th’s pilots became the first black airmen in the Army Air Corps to take part in aerial combat when they traded shots with German fighter planes.
Though their first aerial combat was inconclusive with neither side suffering any losses the lieutenants: Charles Dryden, Willie Ashley, Sidney Brooks, Lee Rayford, Leon Roberts and Spann Watson had earned a place in the history books.
As the course of the war moved from North Africa across the Mediterranean and onto the continent of Europe the Tuskegee Airmen followed providing air cover and support for the Allied landings at Salerno. During this period the black flyers saw plenty of action in the ground attack role flying as many as five sorties a day on some occasions. The idea was to strike at the German’s communications and logistics network and deprive the enemy of needed supplies with which to wage war. Targets included roads, bridges, rail yards and railroads as well as airfields.
Thus far the African-American flyers of the 99th had only one kill to their credit but in late January of 1944 they started to light up the skies over Italy with eight kills in a single day. On January 24th a morning patrol resulted in five German aircraft shot down and that afternoon three more aircraft of the Luftwaffe were knocked out of the sky. The men of the 99th served notice they were on a roll when the next day they claimed four more kills.
During this time the 99th had been serving with the 79th Fighter Group but in April it was partnered with the 324th Fighter Group and took part in the effort to cut off the German garrison at Monte Cassino. In July four black squadrons: the 99th, the 100th, the 301st and the 302nd were formed into the 332nd Fighter Group. At the same time the squadrons of the 332nd started to be equipped with the P-51 Mustang, the plane many, to this day, consider the ultimate example of the propeller driven fighter plane.
Later in July of 1944 the 332nd would serve as escorts to the heavy bombers of the Army Air Corps and on July 12th Captain Joseph Elsberry would bag three Focke-Wulf FW-190’s, the capable German fighter that had already earned the respect of allied airmen.
On the 13th fighters of the 332nd would escort bombers on the mission to destroy the Ploesti oilfields in Romania.
More and more the pilots known as the ‘Red Tails,’ because of the bright red paint emblazoned on the spinners and tails of their planes, were becoming a legend among the hard-pressed weary bomber crews because when the Red Tails were the escort the men in the bomber knew their chances of coming home alive were greatly increased. Soon the bomber crews took to calling the pilots of the 332nd Fighter Group the ‘Red Tail Angels,’ a mark of true respect for men whom of the bomber crews did not realize were black. The Germans also had a name for them- Schwartze Vogelemenshen or Black Birdmen. And, for those who did, it made little difference because as members of the fraternity of the air they knew and respected others who shared the same risk and had proven themselves to be outstanding pilots.
What made the men of the 332nd stand out, in the opinion of the bomber crewmen, was that the Red Tails would stick with the bombers through thick and thin. Other fighter groups used different tactics flying further out from the bombers in search of enemy fighters and often ‘free-lancing’ in an effort to increase the number of kills. While that resulted in a greater number of kills it also meant that any German fighters that did manage to get in close to the bombers had a better chance of knocking one of them down. There was a reason the men of the 332nd stuck so tenaciously with their charges. The 332nd’s commanding officer Colonel Benjamin O. Davis saw the role of escorting the bombers to the target and back again as an elite mission; one that could go a long way in proving that men of color could fight alongside their comrades and fight just as well as anyone else. The pilots were told by Davis that the bombers were their first responsibility and that anyone caught leaving a bomber to chase after an enemy fighter would not only be grounded but would also be brought up for court-martial.
What resulted was an enviable accomplishment that no other fighter group in the United States Army Air Force would match. The Tuskegee Airmen would not lose one single bomber they escorted to enemy fighters.
March 24th, 1945 was the day that the men of the 332nd would set another record escorting bombers on the longest mission flown by the 15th Air Force when the Daimler-Benz works in Berlin was the target. In addition the mission to Berlin would also go down in the books as notable because that day the Red Tails tangled with the Messerschmitt Me-262 jet fighters that Germans were counting on to turn the tide in the air over the fatherland and when it was over the 332nd had claimed three of the revolutionary new planes. For its performance that day the 332nd Fighter Group would receive a Distinguished Unit Citation.
By the end of the Second World War just under a thousand men had graduated from the pilot training program by the division of Aeronautics of Tuskegee Institute and 450 of them had seen combat overseas. Around 150 would die either in training accidents or in combat.
War’s end would find that the Tuskegee Airmen had flown over 15,000 missions and in the process destroyed a 111 German aircraft in aerial combat while destroying another 150 on the ground.
One problem in documenting the history of the Tuskegee Airmen is that military records from various sources give differing figures on the exact number of Tuskegee Airmen.
One thing can be agree upon, however, and that was that when the fighting had ended and the guns fallen silent the Tuskegee Airmen had done their part in helping secure victory. The numbers tell the story. By the end of World War II they had flown over 15,000 combat sorties and in the process destroyed over 260 German aircraft in the air and on the ground. In addition they destroyed some 950 railcars, trucks and other pieces of rolling stock. One of the Tuskegee Airmen could even lay claim to sinking a destroyer during one mission.
America’s black pilots would earn 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses, 744 Air Medals, 8 Purple Hearts and 14 Bronze Stars, in the process 66 pilots gave their lives while another 32 would become prisoners of war.
They would leave their legacy in the skies of Europe while flying a number of different types of aircraft including the P-40 Tomahawk as well as the P-39 Airacobra, the P-47 Thunderbolt and the P-51 Mustang which Benjamin Davis would later call the “superior fighter” produced by the United States during World War II.
But the Tuskegee Airmen would accomplish more, so much more than just the destruction of the enemy’s airplanes and protecting the bombers that were taking the war to the enemy’s homeland. Their steps toward equality were just the first on the longer road toward acceptance and equality for an entire group of people who were also Americans.
On July 26th, 1948 President Harry Truman would sign Executive Order #9981 desegregating the American armed forces. In 1954, on October 27 Col. Benjamin O. Davis was promoted to Brigadier General, the first African-American to reach flag rank in the United States Air Force. In September of 1975 Daniel “Chappie” James would be promoted to General, the first black American to reach four star rank. Another Tuskegee Airman would also reach flag rank; Major General Lucius Thueus.
While many of the Tuskegee Airman would return to civilian life after the end of the war others would choose to stay in the military and would fly in defense of freedom in the conflicts that followed. Colonels Charles Cooper; Hannibal Cox and Charles McGee would fight in the Korean War as well as in Viet-Nam and Lieutenant Colonels John “Mr. Death” Whitehead; Bill Holloman and George Hardy would fly and fight in the skies over Viet-Nam.
Their ranks are growing thin as time claims the final victory but the veterans of the “Tuskegee Experiment” long after the last man to wear the title Tuskegee Airman has answered the final roll call the memory of a small band of brave pilots who fought battles both at home and in foreign lands will be an inspiration to future generations of Americans learning of the price of freedom.