January 30, 2013 - History came alive for Clarkston High School students when Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Jefferson visited on Jan. 22 to share his experiences in World War II.
Lt. Col. Alexander Jefferson, with a model of a P-51 Mustang fighter, which he flew in World War II. Photo by Wendi Reardon (click for larger version)
Jefferson flew 19 missions as a Tuskagee airman, a "Red Tail" fighter pilot in the war. He received many awards over the years including the Purple Heart and Distinguished Flying Cross, and is in the Michigan Aviation Hall of Fame.
He was drafted in 1940 and started out by unloading ships, explaining he was small and only weighed 110 pounds.
An opportunity came up to join the U.S. Army Air Corps at a time when no African Americans were flying for the army.
"Organizations raised all kinds of hell," he said. "Elanor Roosevelt helped and all the sudden Congress had to allow $3 million to build Tuskagee Army Air Field - a place especially to train black flyers.To be a pilot and learn how to fly was exciting."
He flew a P-51 Mustang, which went 400 miles per hour and at the time was the fastest propeller-driven airplane in the world – fast enough to shoot down German jets.
Their job was to fly long range missions and escort B-17 and B-24 bombers from Italy to Berlin. They flew above the bombers and protected them. For their 19th mission they had to go to southern France to destroy radar stations on a 200-foot cliff.
"We came in at 15,000 feet," he remembered. "We came off the ocean, beautiful weather, when they started firing at us. The whole side of the cliff opened up."
Over the radio every one was talking. The first flight made it through, then the second and third. As Jefferson got closer, the last plane in the fourth flight, all he could see was little red puffs.
"I go across and boom, the shell came up through the floor," he described. "I have gloves and oxygen mask. It gets hot. I am doing 400 miles per hour. Everything is in the red - oil pressure, heat, everything. Everything on the instrument panel is blue. I have to get out."
He pointed out during the whole period of training he never learned how to get out of an airplane.
Jefferson did the only thing he could do - he pulled back on the stick to get some altitude. Then, he turned the stick loose.
"When you turn the stick lose the airplane drops," he explained. "When it drops you have straps held by a big buckle and I am out. I remember when I came out, the tail going by was on fire."
The airmen with him reported him killed in action, but he made it to the ground and was captured.
"The German soldier was surprised to see me, my color and my rank," he said. "He saw the gold bar on my collar and saluted me."
He spent nine months in Germany as a Prisoner of War.
"We were treated like gentlemen because they knew everything about us," Jefferson said. "No beatings, no torture. I was safer in the Stalag Luft III POW camp than I would be in Mississippi at the time. They were shooting people in Mississippi."
They were released when the Soviet Army approached and ended up at an American camp near Munich. While they were waiting, someone mentioned a place called Dachau was nearby. Jefferson was part of a group to go investigate.
"The ovens were still warm where they were burning human bodies," he described. "The odor of burning human flesh is something I will never forget. You have probably heard people say Dachau didn't exist. I was there."
When he came back to the U.S., he was among 5,000 men of different ranks. They passed the Statue of Liberty and flags were flying. But as he got off the boat, Caucasians where directed to the right and African Americans to the left.
"I was back home to racism," Jefferson said, something he fought against all his life.
"You are in a different position then I was when I went to school with racist attitudes," he said. "I had to fight my way home. A kid called me a dirty name and I was fighting. I am talking about bullying. If you don't have enough guts on your inside to respect yourself, then nobody else will have any respect for you."
He wanted to be a chemist but was considered over qualified. He ended up teaching elementary science for 35 years.
"It was the best thing that ever happened because I had the chance and the opportunity to help young people grow up and join society," he said. "Don't be a dummy - go to school – be a nerd. If you are not, more than likely when you get out of school you will work for a nerd."
He wrote a memoir called Red Tail Captured, Red Tail Free: Memoirs of a Tuskagee Airman and POW.
Wendi graduated from the University of Michigan-Flint with a degree in communications. She wrote for the Michigan Times college paper and Grand Blanc View before joining The Clarkston News in October 2007.