- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 21, 2006

OAK GROVE, Va. — Charles Bernard Smith always loved airplanes.

As a youngster growing up in Westmoreland County in the 1920s, he dismantled family clocks, trying to use their works to power his model planes.

When that didn’t work, he cut rubber strips from inner tubes to spin the propellers of the models he launched from the upstairs windows of his family’s home near Mattox Creek.

One of the first planes he ever saw was at Colonial Beach. It was taking up tourists for flights over the resort, but little black children like him couldn’t fly in it.

But that didn’t stop him from dreaming about airplanes.

He told his younger sister Lorraine they would get a plane and become famous. He’d be the pilot and she would jump out in a parachute.

But first, they had to practice.

“He made me climb up on the roof of the chicken house and jump off with an umbrella. The fall knocked me out and Charles dumped a bucket of water on me to bring me to. I’ve had a scar inside my mouth ever since,” remembers Lorraine Smith Philpott, now 86.

Soon, other people also will remember Charles Bernard Smith, who died in New York in 1991 at age 74.

A historical marker will be set in April beside State Route 205 to honor his service as one of the legendary Tuskegee airmen.

The marker will note that Mr. Smith, a technical sergeant and crew chief of the famed 99th Fighter Squadron, was “one of more than 140,000 African Americans who served in the racially segregated U.S. Army Air Forces during World War II.”

As a sergeant and crew chief, Mr. Smith helped keep the squadron’s P51 Mustangs and other fighters flying on their high-altitude, long-range missions escorting bombers over Italy, France and Germany.

Like the rest of his siblings, Mr. Smith moved to Washington after attending an all-black high school in Westmoreland County.

He took his love of flying with him and received a pilot’s license in 1938. His flight instructor was C. Alfred “Chief” Anderson, a pioneering black aviator who made a round-trip, transcontinental flight in 1934.

As World War II loomed, Mr. Smith tried to join the Royal Canadian Air Force, but was turned down because he was black, his sister said.

In 1941, Congress, over the Army’s objections, authorized an experiment to train black airmen. Mr. Smith jumped at the chance and enlisted in the Army Air Corps at Bolling Field in Washington.

Along with 250 other blacks, he was sent to Chanute Field in Illinois to learn aircraft maintenance. Mr. Smith’s group became the core of the famous squadron that trained in Alabama at the Tuskegee Institute founded by Booker T. Washington.

The black men flew 15,000 sorties. They destroyed more than 400 enemy aircraft. They never lost a bomber to enemy fire, a record achieved by no other fighter group.

German pilots learned to avoid the “Black Birdmen.” Allied bomber pilots nicknamed their Tuskegee escorts “Red Tails” after the color they painted their vertical stabilizers.

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