Tuskegee Airman Eugene Smith flies solo in lifelong battle for equality

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Eugene Smith of Florence was a member of the famed Tuskegee Airmen unit during World War II. The son of a man who was half American Indian, the doctor who delivered Eugene Smith listed him as “colored” on his birth certificate, so he was not allowed to train with white pilots after the U.S. entered World War II – instead being sent off to the Tuskegee Air Base to train with African-American pilots – who didn’t know why a white man was a part of their unit.

In part two of his story, Eugene Smith comes home from the war, only to find that he’s unaccepted by both sides of a nation filled with racial tensions.

GROUNDED

After returning from a mission that no one was expected to, Eugene Smith continued to fly into enemy territory. He flew 16 missions over Germany in support of the Allied invasion; and one mission in particular led to him again having to deal with adversity.

“As I brought the plane back in, I was under so much pressure that my right eye was swollen shut and my left eye was almost swollen shut,” Eugene Smith says of that day. “I tried to keep it straight, but at the end of the runway I couldn’t hold it and it turned around on me.”

It was that incident that led Colonel B.O. Davis, the commander of Eugene Smith’s unit in Italy and a person who wanted Eugene Smith out of his outfit, to ground his pilot and send him back to the states.

“When I woke up after that landing, I was on a hospital ship somewhere in the Atlantic,” Eugene Smith said. “There was an MP at my door and I was told that I had been grounded and was listed as a mental patient.”

Colonel Davis had told doctors that Eugene Smith “heard voices” – referring to his flight home from the Yugoslavia mission when he heard a voice tell him to take the plane to a higher altitude in order to preserve fuel.

Arriving in the U.S., Eugene Smith said that he was ushered to several hospitals, all of which determined very quickly that he wasn’t mentally ill – and immediately returned him to flight status. Knowing that they couldn’t send him back to Italy, his superiors here assigned Eugene Smith to the one place they thought he could handle.

He went back to Tuskegee.

“When I got to Tuskegee, a Colonel Parish heard my story and understood completely what my situation was,” Eugene Smith said. “He assigned me to teach students to fly by instruments.”

Eugene Smith said that officers at Tuskegee also understood his predicament when it came to social interaction, so on weekends they allowed him to check out a plane and fly to different cities where he was free of the stigma that followed him in the service.

Teaching African-American pilots to fly using only their instruments at Tuskegee, Eugene Smith continued his work until Colonel Parish came and informed him that the government was closing the historic base and its program.

“Colonel Parish told me that I had my choice, I could be reassigned to a base in Texas or one in Columbus, Ohio,” Eugene Smith said. “Lockbourne Air Base in Columbus was close to people that I knew, and I was born in Ohio, so I decided to go there.”

Sometimes history comes with a bit of irony.

“I go up there to Columbus and when I check in, who’s sitting there?” Eugene Smith says with a smile. “Colonel Davis – the man who hates my guts. He had been sent to command the base, and after getting me sent away, he’s got to deal with me again.”

“What are you doing here?” Eugene Smith remembers Colonel Davis asking.

“They sent me here to teach guys to fly instruments.”

“No you’re not. You’re going into the reserves,” was the answer, Eugene Smith recalls. “That guy put me out of the Air Force.”

A CIVILIAN AGAIN

Now out of the fulltime military, Eugene Smith found himself in Columbus, Ohio, trying to find a job. Going to the employment office, he actually got a job in the employment office working with servicemen who were returning from the war and were looking for jobs, too.

In another ironic twist, he actually got a job interviewing employers and trying to help them hire more minority workers. It was one instance when his racial classification actually worked to his benefit.

“It was hell between the races in the early 1950s,” Eugene Smith said. “I started making the rounds and working with businesses, and for some reason I decided to go to law school, so I worked eight hours a day and went to Franklin Law School three hours a night.”

After graduating from law school, Eugene Smith spent 12 years as chief counsel for the Hamilton County, Ohio, public defenders office. During that time he earned the “Senatorial Citation” – the highest honor a person can earn in the State of Ohio; and also earned a proclamation by then Cincinnati mayor David Mann. He was also one of the first “black men” to earn designation as “Kentucky Colonel”.

In January of 1957, Eugene Smith was honorably discharged from the U.S. Air Force as a first lieutenant.

OUTSIDE LOOKING IN

The Tuskegee Airmen have become a part of the fabric of American history as an all African-American group of pilots during World War II. In April of 2006, President Bush gave final approval to Congressman Charles Rangel of New York’s legislation that conferred a special award on all members of the group.

The Congressional Gold Medal is Congress’ most distinguished civilian award, and a special ceremony was held at the U.S. Capitol Rotunda in Washington, D.C. to present the award.

But Eugene Smith wasn’t there.

“I didn’t know anything about it,” he said. “I was finally told that I wasn’t invited. They had this big ceremony in Washington and all of the pilots who were still living were taken out there for the ceremony all expenses paid. Everyone of them but me.”

In the press release announcing the award, Representative Rangel office states, “The Tuskegee Airmen were a group of 994 African-American pilots who gained fame during WW II for their heroism escorting American bombers in raids over Europe and North Africa….”

Living quietly at Turtle Creek Harbor (“Bob Wheeler has given me safe haven there,” Eugene Smith says), people around Switzerland County began to hear the story of the Tuskegee Airman living here, and began to ask questions as to why he was not a part of the Washington ceremony. Eugene Smith learned that the Tuskegee Airmen were going to be honored at an air show at Rickenbacker Air Base near Columbus, Ohio.

“A friend named Wally Gray went through his computer and checked out everything and knew all about me,” Eugene Smith said. “He asked me if I wanted to go to Columbus for the air show, and when I told him yes, he told me he’d drive me up there.”

Wally Gray moved to Georgia shortly thereafter, and friend Vern Waltz agreed to drive Eugene Smith to the air show if Wally Gray wasn’t able to come back. When it came time to travel to Columbus – Wally Gray was back and ready to go.

“I carried all of my records in a leather case, because I knew I would have to prove to them who I was,” Eugene Smith said. “When we got to the base, I was stopped and told I couldn’t go in. A policeman from Columbus asked me where I thought I was going, and I pulled out my papers and told him that I was part of that outfit. They sent me all over the place.”

Eugene Smith said that a flatbed trailer had been prepared for the airmen, and contained a small set of bleachers so that the airmen could be taken around the field and recognized by the nearly 30,000 people in attendance.

But Eugene Smith wasn’t allowed to get on board.

“I was told that I couldn’t get on the trailer. I was told that I couldn’t be in the photograph,” Eugene Smith says. “They went all around the airfield and had these fancy jackets and pants, and I was wearing a tee-shirt.”

Eugene Smith asked one military official for his Congressional Medal, but was told that because he wasn’t in Washington, D.C., he couldn’t have one. Finally he and Wally Gray decided it was time to leave.

“We were driving home and I was just sick about the way they’d treated me,” Eugene Smith said. “Wally looked over at me and told me to look in my briefcase that had all of my papers in it. When I opened it, there was a box inside.”

Wally Gray said that while he was waiting for Eugene Smith, a high ranking military officer came up to him and handed him a box containing the Congressional Medal and asked that he give it to Eugene Smith, “because he deserved it.”

THE QUIET LIFE

Today, Eugene Smith lives quietly at the Turtle Creek Marina. He has lunch at the senior citizens center in Vevay, and at 89 years old, is a pretty active member of the community.

As he looks back over his life, Eugene Smith has mixed feelings of pride and resentment. His birth certificate still follows him, as it took more than a year to get an Indiana driver’s license. He says he’s considered throwing it away, but also knows that for all of the havoc that it has created in his life – it also has played a major role in developing the man that he is today.

“I guess I’ve never been accepted by anybody,” Eugene Smith says. “My birth certificate makes me too black for white people; and I’m too white for black people, so I guess I’ll just have to be who I am.”

– Pat Lanman