- Associated Press - Friday, June 5, 2015

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) - As one of the nation’s famed Red Tail fighters during World War II, Capt. Roscoe C. Brown Jr. would not let racial segregation stop him from becoming a historic Tuskegee Airman.

Brown returned to the familiar city of Montgomery this week, near where he learned to fly at Molton Field and arrived with 10 other legendary aviators - including WWII veteran and former prisoner of war, Capt. Robert “Bob” Wolff, Vietnam War POW, Col. Leon “Lee” Ellis and Libyan conflict veteran, Gen. Maggie Woodward - for this week’s 34th annual Gathering of Eagles event.

They are among 12 men and women who are being honored this week through Friday for their courage and perseverance with various events at Maxwell Air Force Base and in downtown Montgomery.

When Brown was 5, his attention was already fixated on flight.

Brown grew up in Washington, D.C., and graduated from the Tuskegee Flight School in 1944.

At that time, African-Americans were deemed unfit both physically and mentally to fly something as complex as an aircraft.

Brown and hundreds of other black men would prove the myth wrong with the help of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who authorized a group of black pilots to fight in WWII.

“Many of us rushed to join, because we wanted to fly. After we learned to fly, we became good combat pilots,” Brown said. “… As history goes on, we get better.”

In fact, the Tuskegee Airmen Red Tails are most well known for their near-perfect record of not losing an aircraft against enemy fighters in more than 200 flight missions. They destroyed 250 enemy aircraft on the ground and 150 in air-to-air combat.

Brown flew 68 combat missions over Germany and shot down two enemy fighters.

“The mission we are best known for is the mission to Berlin in March 24, 1945, when we escorted bombers from the Southern Italy 15th Air Force for the first time over Berlin,” Brown said. “I shot down the first jet plane from our group, and we shot down two others.”

From that mission, the Red Tails’ reputation grew.

“Unlike some of the other pilots, we would stay close to the bombers to protect them from the enemy fighters,” Brown said. “By the end of the war, many of the bombers groups said they preferred the Tuskegee Airmen Red Tails to protect them.”

Brown is proud of the role he and the Tuskegee Airmen played which led Harry Truman to eliminate segregation within the military. Brown later commanded the 100th Fighter Squadron.

His hope is that others will continue to fight for equal opportunity.

“We know Montgomery and the segregation (that was) here, we know about the Bus Boycott, we know about Rosa Parks,” Brown said. “It makes us feel proud and shows the country can change.”

Also flying in WWII, Capt. Robert Wolff was a B-17 bomber pilot, but his career took a different turn during his eighth mission.

Wolff and his 10-man crew, “The Wolff Pack,” crash landed and their craft erupted in flames after being shot down by the Germans.

“We lost two engines and couldn’t stay up, so I dove for the ground,” Wolff said. “We managed to dodge a church steeple and a large bridge and got out over the water and one of the outer engines, the number four engine, blew up, and we were on fire.”

They got out of the plane and tried to escape. But a German patrol boat was right behind them and Wolff and his team were captured on Sept. 16, 1943. They served as POWs for 19 months at Stalag Luif 3.

“We weren’t treated as heroes, but they didn’t mistreat us,” Wolff said. “Our biggest problem was to make sure we had enough food to eat, but between the Germans bowl of barley a day and a loaf of bread every so often and the Red Cross parcels, we managed to survive.”

Wolff was imprisoned with other officers a few miles east of Berlin and could hear the bombing from the camp.

Near the war’s end, the Russians advanced toward their camp and the Germans moved Wolff and the rest of the prisoners to camp Musberg.

On April 29, 1945, the United States’ Third Army tank broke down the gates and freed them.

“That tank that came through was swarmed by prisons of war, you couldn’t see what they were climbing on, there were so many of them,” Wolff said. “There was a lot of excitement and happiness.”

Wolff continued to serve in the Army and the reserves for 10 years and received the Distinguished Flying Cross and Air Medal.

Enduring one of the most horrific periods of his life, Col. Leon Ellis served as a prisoner of war at the Hanoi Hilton during the Vietnam War.

Ellis, then 24 years old, was shot down on his 53rd mission as an F-4C pilot assigned to the 390th Tactical Fighter Squadron at DaNang Air Base, Vietnam. He was imprisoned for more than five years.

“It was Nov. 7, 1967 … my airplane was hit and blew up over enemy territory over the communist part of North Vietnam,” Ellis said. “I was captured almost immediately. I parachuted in the midst of the militia there, and they captured me within a couple of minutes.”

Like most imprisoned by the Vietnamese, Ellis endured countless tortures.

“Some days were really hard … we were all tortured at one time or another, threatened that we might never be able to go home, that we might be tried for war crimes and at the same time there were days it was just boring,” Ellis said. “We had to learn to use our minds.”

Ellis found the courage to survive through his Christian faith and the selfless leadership of Air Force commanders imprisoned with him.

“We built a very strong organization. We had great leadership, and I think that’s what made it easier for us,” Ellis said. “We came out better men for it.”

Ellis was released on March 14, 1973 following the Paris Peace Talk negotiations. Today, he is an author, speaker and owns a leadership consulting business in Georgia.

A modern-day hero, Brig. Gen. Maggie Woodward was recognized this week for her role in the peace-keeping initiative over Libya during the nation’s civil war in 2011.

Serving as the commander of the 17th Air Force and U.S. Forces in Africa, Woodward became the first female commander of the Combined Forces Air Component.

She was tasked to enforce the United Nations’ no-fly zone over Libya, code-named Operation ODYSSEY DAWN.

“Within 96 hours, we had nine different countries flying with us on our air tasking orders. That was a truly amazing challenge, but they were a great help in being able to get our mission done,” Woodward said.

Their mission was to protect the populace of Libya from government forces.

With today’s continued unrest in Libya, Woodward is often asked about that mission.

“At the time I remember being concerned about intervening in a civil war,” Woodward said. “It’s a tough decision to make for our political leaders, but after going and laying a wreath at the Rwanda memorial on top of 10,000 bodies, I had a real sense of how important it was to protect the populace in a situation like that.”

Woodward, a former student of Air Command and Staff College, is humble about returning to Maxwell and being honored as an Eagle this week.

“I don’t feel like I belong among these giants, but it’s absolutely wonderful to be with them and to hear their stories and to get to know them,” Woodward said.

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Information from: Montgomery Advertiser, https://www.montgomeryadvertiser.com

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