Eugene Smith of Florence: Tuskegee Airman fights discrimination while serving country

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“Colored”.

It’s a word that has caused controversy and division over decades – and it’s a word that impacted the life of Florence’s Eugene Smith for all of his 89 years.

It’s a word that made him one of the members of one of the most honored groups of pilots during World War II – and it’s a word that keeps him from getting the recognition he so rightfully deserves.

Eugene Smith was a member of the famed “Tuskegee Airmen”, a group of African-American pilots that flew hundreds of bombing missions during World War II.

But Eugene Smith isn’t African-American – and that’s where the fascinating story of a man simply trying to serve his country begins.

MIXED MARRIAGE

“My Italian grandfather had an American Indian wife,” Eugene Smith begins. “When he moved to Franklin, Ohio, in the early part of the 20th Century, he was razzed about having an Indian wife. They had a son, who was my father.”

Eugene Smith says that a marriage between a white person and a person of any other nationality – even an Indian – was viewed as a “mixed marriage” by society then, so when his white, red-haired American mother married a man who was half American Indian – the community was outraged.

“When mother got pregnant with me, she was 25 years old, and they had a fit up in Franklin,” Eugene Smith says. “The town was outraged. The doctor that delivered me signed my birth certificate ‘Dr. Death’ because he was so offended.”

And the doctor did one other thing. On Eugene Smith’s birth certificate, the doctor wrote three letters:

COL.

“Colored.”

“You’ve got to remember the society people were living in back then,” Eugene Smith warns. “Back then, there was ‘white’ and there was ‘Negro’; and anyone else was classified as ‘colored’ – somewhere in between.”

The community was so incensed, Eugene Smith says, that there was talk of a lynching in the community, which caused the town marshal to hide baby Eugene Smith and his mother at the town lumber yard.

“They hid me in a paper sack, an they got on the midnight trolley between Dayton and Cincinnati,” Eugene Smith says. “I wound up as a two-day old baby in Headquarters, Kentucky. I don’t know how they did it.”

Eugene Smith said that after that his mother never had much to do with him, leaving him to be raised in Headquarters by a black family friend. He remained there until he was six years old.

CALL TO DUTY

Life continued to pass for Eugene Smith, when – in December of 1941 – the Japanese made a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, and American went to war.

“After Pearl Harbor I went down to the recruiting office and signed up and said I wanted to be a pilot and fight the Japanese,” Eugene Smith remembers. “I passed all of the exams and they said that they would call me in a few days.”

Then they saw Eugene Smith’s birth certificate.

“Colored”.

“They said, ‘You can’t fly with this birth certificate, because you’re not white,” Eugene Smith said. “I said, ‘What do you mean I’m not white? Look at me!’. They told me that they were setting up a base in Tuskegee, Alabama, where they were going to try and teach black military men to fly. They said if I wanted to go along with them, I could go.”

So he did.

More problems began when the military put him in charge of a group of men who were also on their way to Tuskegee for the program. Those men – African-American – didn’t like the fact that Eugene Smith – whom they saw as white – being in charge of them.

“When I got to the train I was stopped when I tried to get on,” Eugene Smith said. “They said ‘you’re not riding with them’, referring to the black soldiers.”

“I told them, ‘I’m with them – I’m one of them,” he said.

Eugene Smith said that trains in those days had “Jim Crow Cars”, where African-Americans had to ride segregated from other passengers. Eugene Smith said that they put the 17 soldiers under his command in the front of the car, then hung newspaper between his seat and theirs, so that there would be a separation.

“When it came time to eat, I went to the dining car with the 17 black guys, and that caused a hell of an explosion,” Eugene Smith said with a smile.

Arriving at the air base in Tuskegee, Eugene Smith was met by superior officers – all African-American – and they had one firm question:

“What are you doing here?”

“It caused all sorts of confusion,” Eugene Smith said. “I was assigned with some other guys for primary training, but I was a freak – they didn’t want me there, either.”

With other instructors refusing to teach “white” Eugene Smith to fly, one black instructor who was assigned to teach primary training took Eugene Smith up on a couple of flights and promptly reached the conclusion that he couldn’t fly – grounding the increasingly frustrated soldier.

“He turned me over to the captain, who couldn’t understand why I was grounded,” Eugene Smith said. “So he took me aside and taught me to fly.”

After his training, Eugene Smith graduated from flight school, and on the day of his graduation, his mother and aunt showed up in Tuskegee for the ceremony.

“They wouldn’t let them on the base,” he said. “Finally, a colonel who was head of the base let them on and took them to a conference room. He kept asking my mother, ‘Why? Why is he here? How is he here?'”

Life at Tuskegee was tough during the training – on and off of the base.

Eugene Smith said that discrimination laws in the South at that time kept him from going anywhere with his fellow soldiers in the town. They couldn’t eat together, because “white” restaurants wouldn’t serve his black comrades – and “black” restaurants wouldn’t serve him. All of this led to even more isolation for a young man simply wanting to serve his country in a time of war.

ACTIVE DUTY

Graduating from Tuskegee as a fighter pilot, Eugene Smith was sent to Selfridge Field in Michigan – where he again found himself in the middle between sides of discrimination.

“It was the same problem up there,” he recalls. “They had an officers club there, but it was all white, no blacks allowed. I didn’t know that, so I joined. No one said a word because white officers thought I was white.”

That all changed when a black officer asked if he could accompany Eugene Smith to the officers club. The two entered the club, and again – “All hell broke loose,” Eugene Smith says.

The following morning, Eugene Smith said that the pilots went out on a strafing mission in a P-39, a maneuver in which the planes flew just above the ice-covered lake.

“We’re about 20 feet off of the ice, and all of a sudden one of my superiors turned into me. I didn’t have anyplace to go but up,” Eugene Smith said. “My wings touched the ice, and I slid up under him to the left, and climbed up to about 5,000 feet to catch my breath.”

The officer then called the airfield and reported that Eugene Smith had crashed his plane in the ice, and that he presumed that Eugene Smith was dead.

But he wasn’t.

“I got on the radio and said ‘I’m not dead’,” Eugene Smith said. “I said ‘I’m here above the airfield, and he tried to kill me.”

Officers met Eugene Smith at the airfield when he landed, and the officer who caused the incident was charged with attempted murder. After accepting a demotion, he was transferred from Selfridge Field.

Soon thereafter, Eugene Smith was shipped off to help with the war in Africa.

“I joined the 302 Fighter Squadron – they got all of the leftovers,” Eugene Smith said with a grin. “The outfit was headed by Colonel B.O. Davis – and he didn’t want me there, but he got stuck with me, so any rotten mission they had – I was sent on.”

After flying strafing missions in Africa, Eugene Smith and his fellow pilots were sent to Italy to accompany bombers on their missions.

“These guys never lost a bomber,” Eugene Smith says proudly, “They protected them perfectly.”

Assigned to fly a P-51 and given the task of escorting bombers, Eugene Smith and his fellow “Tuskegee Airmen” flew missions over Germany and other locations in hostile air space.

“I flew 16 missions over enemy territory,” Eugene Smith said. “I have certificates that say I earned all sorts of medals, including the Bronze Star – but I never actually got any of them.”

‘THE SUPREME SACRIFICE’

Eugene Smith vividly remembers one morning in Italy when he was awakened and told to report to the “Ready Room” for the details of a mission.

“The man in charge said, ‘Gentlemen, today we’re asking you for the supreme sacrifice’,” Eugene Smith said quietly. “‘We’re asking you to fly a mission from which you aren’t coming back’.”

“I told the crew chief that I wouldn’t see him anymore, and they all wished us well,” Eugene Smith says of that morning. “Everyone thought that this was it.”

Eugene Smith says that he had some extra comfort in his cockpit that morning. He says that after being run out of town when he was a baby, his mother got connected with a Jewish family; and one day one “a nice old Jewish lady” handed him a box containing a leather-bound Bible.

“It went with me everywhere I went,” Eugene Smith said. “Whenever I took off, I would always say a quick prayer and touch that Bible, which I carried in the sleeve pocket of my pants. When I left that morning, that Bible was right there with me.”

The mission that day was to Plosesce Oil Field in Yugoslavia. The main source of oil going to the German army, knocking out the field’s production would severely cripple the Nazi war effort.

“The first mission was a low altitude mission and they knocked out all of the bombers,” Eugene Smith remembers. “The second mission I was on a high altitude mission with B-17s. When we took them in, the guys I was flying with didn’t let any enemy aircraft get against the bombers we were protecting. When we flew in, there were 1,000 anti-aircraft guns. The anti-aircraft fire was so heavy, you could see the planes blowing up.”

Eugene Smith said that his squadron flew in and dropped their bombs and got out of the area, but as the group flew out of range of enemy fire and started back toward the base, Eugene Smith and his fellow pilots who were protecting the bombers knew that they didn’t have enough fuel to make it back to the base.

“I pulled in and called to the lead bomber pilot and told him that I wasn’t going to get back and to tell the people at the base that I went down protecting them and to send my medal to my mother,” Eugene Smith said. “Then I said a prayer and touched my Bible, and figured that was it.”

But it wasn’t.

Suddenly and quietly, alone in his aircraft, Eugene Smith heard a voice.

“I heard a voice as plain as yours say, ‘Not yet, son. Get this airplane as high as you can’,” Eugene Smith said with a stare. “I took the plane to 39,000 feet. They didn’t even know that the plane would survive that high.”

Eugene Smith said that he set the plane on a slow glide, and the craft kept going and going. Higher altitude meant less drag on the craft, so fuel lasted longer in lighter air.

“I was strapped in for six hours and 30 minutes,” Eugene Smith recalled. “I kept flying until I saw our airfield. It was in a wheat field, and the runway ran right down toward the sea. I called in for a landing, but they didn’t want me to land.”

The name of his plane? “No Excuse”.

Eugene Smith said he came in for a landing, and as the plane touched the ground, the engines quit. It was completely out of fuel. After all of those hours in the plane, Eugene Smith couldn’t stand up or get out of his plane.

“I was met at the end of the runway by the General, Colonel Davis, and the MPs,” Eugene Smith said. “They got me out of the plane and accused me of everything and told me that I was going to be court martialed and I was going to be shot.”

The officers accused him of landing his plane somewhere out of fear of dying and not going on the assigned mission – because he wasn’t supposed to come back.

It was then that the lead bomber pilot that Eugene Smith had talked to flew over the field, and confirmed that Eugene Smith had, indeed, been in the battle.

“I don’t remember anything else until I woke up the next morning in my tent,” Eugene Smith remembers. “I was the only one there, the other two guys were gone. I was the only one who came back.”

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NEXT WEEK: The incredible story of Eugene Smith continues, as he continues to fly dangerous missions over Europe; and then returns home to find that not much has changed in the black and white world that he left behind.