Thursday, March 22, 2001
The much-decorated Campbell was the last commander of the famed 99th Pursuit Squadron of WWII. Today, Campbell is respected and heavily referenced in history books, but, from conversation, you would never guess that he had done or experienced anything exceptional.
As is sometimes the case, pivotal events began serendipitously. Campbell became a Tuskegee Airman almost on a lark. During the late 1930s, he graduated from college and worked at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. A Civilian Pilot Training Program was initiated to develop a pool of young fliers, and a program for "Negro" pilots sprang up at the institute. The call went out for young, educated African-American men.
Not many answered. To fill the ranks, the program director personally contacted Campbell and asked him if he wanted to learn to fly. Campbell''s response? "How much will it cost me?" When he learned it wouldn''t cost him anything, he signed on.
Campbell underwent primary training in a J-3 Cub and secondary training in a WACO PT-17. About that time, an Army Air Corps pilot landed his AT-6 (an attack trainer) on the field at Tuskegee. Campbell took one look at the hot little all-metal ship with its panel full of instruments, retractable landing gear and controllable pitch propeller, and thought, Oh, baby, I have to fly that!
Hoping to get a chance to do so, Campbell enlisted in the Army Air Corps. He quit his clerk job at the institute, got his instructor''s rating, and made a whopping $200 a month as a flight instructor at the newly built Tuskegee Army Air Field.
During the prewar period, blacks comprised less than .01 percent of the regular army and U.S. racial policies excluded blacks from the Marine Corps and the Army Air Corps. They were segregated in the regular Army and could enlist only as messmen in the Navy.
The African-American press and the NAACP pressed for total inclusion in the military and for the abolition of the U.S. War Department''s racial policies. Finally, in 1940, Congress passed the Selective Service Act, which ended official discrimination in the selection of recruits for the Armed Forces. However, a policy of sanctioned segregation termed "Separate but Equal" remained in place.
Mounting pressure to accept and train African-American pilots in the Army Air Corps resulted in the activation of the 99th Pursuit Squadron on March 22, 1941. The Tuskegee Institute was one of two locations where young black pilots were trained, and Campbell was one of 14 cadets in the fourth graduating class of July 3, 1942.
Happy and Distracted
After graduation, Campbell and the 99th languished without active overseas duty while military and political figures haggled over what to do with the all-black squadron. Some African-Americans felt the Tuskegee Airmen essentially were being quarantined. But Campbell didn''t mind--he loved life at Tuskegee. As an officer pilot he was a hot item. There were lots of cute girls around, there was entertainment, and there were dances. The likes of Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong performed for the Tuskegee Airmen as part of a well-organized recreational program.
Campbell was having too much fun. The way he tells it, the whole thing sounded like a picnic--but, then, he makes his combat duty sound a bit too easy, as well.
The Tuskegee Airmen finally shipped out on a converted ocean liner in April of 1943. On Easter Sunday, the 99th landed in Casablanca and marched down its hot streets. The troops were transported soon after to a base in North Africa where they trained in their brand-new P-40 Warhawks. At the time, Rommel had just surrendered in Tunis and the Allies essentially controlled the landscape.
Sentiment among many white military commanders was that blacks would not make good pilots. Campbell and Charlie Hall were selected for the 99th''s first combat mission, serving as wingmen to two lead pilots of the 33rd Fighter Group--an all-white unit. If whites expected the 99th to fail in combat, Campbell intended to show them otherwise. On their run, he kept so tight a formation that after they dropped their bombs and pulled out, Campbell had to laugh at the white pilot''s startled look to see a Tuskegee Airman still right on his wing, practically in his cockpit.
In talking today about his long-ago combat missions, Campbell makes them sound more like soirees than sorties. He is credited with downing a ME-109 on a mission near Linz, Germany. The Tuskegee Airmen: The Men Who Changed a Nation called the clash a "wild dog fight," but Campbell says he doesn''t think the German fighter pilot was paying attention, that''s how he got the advantage.
Campbell was credited by his peers as being the best flight leader of the group. "Everyone who flew with him respected him for his bravery and aggressiveness," recalls one. When group leader Davis had to abort in mid-flight, he directed Campbell to take the lead of 71 Mustangs. During the course of two duty tours, he completed 106 missions and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross with one oak leaf cluster and the air medal with nine clusters.
After the war, Campbell stayed in the Army Air Corps, which became the U.S. Air Force. He married, had sons and retired in 1970 as a full colonel. Somewhere along the line, he obtained a master''s degree in business administration. His retirement lasted about 10 minutes before he arrived on the Monterey Peninsula to teach at the Naval Postgraduate School''s Defense Resources Management Institute.
So what exactly was wrong with the movie The Tuskegee Airmen? Well, no cadet crashed his plane into the building during training. No cadet commandeered a plane and committed suicide in it. The Lawrence Fishburne character did not take First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt up for a ride--that honor went to Charles Anderson. One thing was accurate, though--"The 99th never lost any of the bombers it escorted to enemy fighter fire," says Campbell.
In his youth, Campbell was considered "tall, slender and jovial," and his easy, dignified demeanor remains paramount. He seems to have an inner serenity concerning both the place he holds in history and the racism he overcame in achieving that position. Move over Lawrence Fishburne, Monterey''s got the real deal.