WASHINGTON (DC News Now) — A 96-year-old member of the Tuskegee Airmen stopped by DC News Now and spoke about the aviation history that he had seen — and been a part of.
William Fauntroy Jr., a D.C. native, was assigned to the Tuskegee Army Airfield in July 1944 as a flight cadet. He finished basic training when he was 19 years old and learned how to fly a plane before he even took driving lessons.
Fauntroy said he knew the military was segregated, but he says reporting to training was something that has stayed with him over the years.
Fauntroy recalled going to a bus station on New York Avenue and 13th Street in D.C. with his parents for them to see him off. He met up with a D.C. policeman at that bus station.
“We had to walk to the back of the bus, where we had to sit to go into Virginia. That was my first real understanding of segregation,” Fauntroy said. “… To get on that bus and have to sit in the back of that bus and look out at my parents crying because they knew I had to go sit in the back of that bus to go to Camp Lee to serve my country — that is written on the tablets of my memory.”
Fauntroy said on his first try landing a plane solo, he “bounced all over the place. I never did land the airplane, I just kept going.”
On his second try, he landed the plane successfully. He had to land successfully on his own three times three days in a row — “that means I’ve made nine landings without killing me or anybody else.”
On the fourth day, he was tasked with flying a plane on his own for the first time.
“That day was the day when I’m flying, I’m talking to my mother. My mother’s in Washington, D.C., I’m in Tuskegee, Alabama — and she can’t hear me, but I’m talking to her,” Fauntroy said with a laugh. “I said, ‘Ma, you ought to see me. I’m flying this airplane by myself.'”
After a few months of flight training, Fauntroy was ready to go overseas, but the war had already ended.
The Tuskegee Airmen are “the men and women who were involved in the Tuskegee Experience — the Army Air Corps program to train African Americans to fly, maintain and support combat aircraft in the 1940s,” their website said.
When asked what it means to him today to be a Tuskegee Airman, Fauntroy said, “I’m proud. God has blessed me to be a Tuskegee Airman, and it gave me an opportunity to meet people who I had no idea were available.”
Fauntroy said it was a constant struggle for Black pilots to prove themselves in a still-segregated military.
“It was a constant fight to show we had what it takes to fly in combat,” said Fauntroy, “We knew we were good enough, we just needed a chance to show what we could do.”
He said things changed when First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt flew on a plane with them — one of the biggest moments for the Tuskegee Airmen, he said.
“Mrs. Roosevelt had to fly with one of our instructors — our chief instructor, Chief Anderson, who was a civilian — to prove that negroes could fly, and when she came down, she said, ‘They can fly,’ and of course, she had influence over… President Roosevelt, and of course, that’s what at least got us into the war,” Fauntroy said.
Fauntroy was 10 weeks away from completing the final stage of flight training, but the war ended, so he never got a chance to serve overseas. He was given an option for a military discharge, and he decided to take it.
“There was no reason to stay,” said Fauntroy. “I still had not finished high school, and I needed to get my education.”
After his discharge, Fauntroy earned an engineering degree from Howard University. He was the first Black engineer hired in the D.C. public transportation industry.
“I have been blessed to accomplish a lot in my lifetime,” said Fauntroy, “but serving as a Tuskegee Airman it at the top of the list, because I met people and built relationships that have continued for several decades.”