Iowa Alumni Magazine | February 2006 | Features

The Flight of a Red-Tailed Angel

By Maureen Harmon
As one of the Tuskegee Airmen, Luther Smith fought racial discrimination in both military and civilian life.

On Luther Smith's coffee table sits a model airplane with a red tail. The nose of the P-51 Mustang is perpetually pointed at the ceiling as if it's about to lift off the wooden surface and fly about the room. When Smith tells war stories, he points to the plane. It's the same kind he crashed in World War II. The same kind of plane in which he almost died. It's the same kind of plane he and some 400 other black aviators flew while escorting American bombers to and from their targets.

Smith talks about the bomber pilots—all of them white—and how they called their black escorts Red-Tailed Angels because they offered inpenetrable protection. Never once in their 200 escort bomber missions did the Red-Tailed Angels lose a bomber to enemy fire. It's their claim to fame. That, and the fact that they were the first black aviators in the U.S. Air Force. It was later that they came to be known as the Tuskegee Airmen, named after the base in Alabama where they trained.

But it was years earlier that Smith knew he'd fly one day. He knew it all the way back in second grade in Des Moines, Iowa, when he drew a picture of an airplane for class. He showed his drawing to his teacher and told her he would someday fly his family to Africa in that plane. "The only thing on my mind," says Smith, "was that I wanted to be an aviator like Charles Lindbergh."

When Smith was 13, he started hanging around the Des Moines airport to watch the planes. Airport employees took a liking to the curious boy and offered him a job picking up popcorn bags and other garbage that visitors left behind. Soon, he impressed the mechanics, too, and they allowed him to help wipe down the fuselages, clean off the windshields, refuel the tanks, and carry out minor repairs. He even snagged the attention of the local press. In the summer of 1934, the Des Moines Register Tribune published a photo of the youngster working on the engine of a plane. The headline proclaimed Smith "America's Youngest Grease Ball."

But Smith didn't want to be a mechanic, and he didn't yearn simply to fly planes: he wanted to become a military aviator. "The only caveat," he says, "was that there were no black aviators in the 1930s, so I kept it a secret."

Smith headed to the University of Iowa in 1938 to study engineering, although he had no intention of becoming an engineer. To qualify for military aviation training, a candidate was required to have at least two years of college education. With engineering, Smith figured, he'd get the technical training he would need if the military ever did decide to accept blacks in its air force.

"At least I'll be prepared," Smith thought. "I won't fall flat because I don't know anything about the technical hurdles."

By the time Smith left the university in 1940, the military was not any closer to accepting blacks in its ranks, so Smith enrolled in a Civilian Pilot Training Course, a program established by the government to train pilots in the case of a national emergency.

That emergency came on December 7, 1941.

It was a Sunday, and Smith was in the air when an urgent message came over the radio: "All aircraft return to their airports immediately." When he landed, Smith learned that Pearl Harbor had been bombed. The United States was about to enter World War II, and Smith had a feeling that the military would need all the pilots it could get—including black men.

He was right. That same year, under political pressure from black leaders and organizations, the U.S. Air Force began to train black aviators at Alabama's Tuskegee Army Air Field and at Tuskegee Institute, a black college in Alabama founded by Booker T. Washington.

Since he'd been one of the first black people in America to become a licensed pilot, Smith figured earning his military wings would be simple. "I thought they were going to give me my wings, since I could fly," Smith says. "I was never so wrong. I didn't know anything." He learned quickly that military flying is different from the civilian flying he knew. "It's precision personified—the difference between driving a Volkswagen and an 18-wheel tractor trailer," he says.

The cadets at Tuskegee had a lot to prove but they were determined to succeed at this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. When the men lined up during one of their early training sessions, Smith says, the director of cadet training told them to take a look at the men standing to their right and to their left. One—or both—of these men, he said, won't make it to the end of training.

"You always thought, 'I'm being measured, I'm being watched,'" Smith recalls. "Nobody had a feeling, 'I'm going to make it.'" But he did make it, graduating in 1943. By 1944, he was on active duty, flying combat missions in Europe.

Of the nearly 1,000 black aviators who completed the Tuskegee program with their wings and the rank of second lieutenant, about 450 were deployed to the European Theater. Stationed either in North Africa or Italy, they escorted Allied bombers on their forays into enemy territory. At first, many men within the military were wary of the black pilots, but as more and more pilots returned to base safely thanks to the protection they received, the white aviators began to request that a Red-Tail be their escort.

Within eight months of his deployment, Smith had logged 132 missions. His final assignment of World War II-No. 133-was scheduled for Friday, October 13, 1944.

Luther Smith isn't superstitious, but climbing into the cockpit on Friday the 13th was a little unnerving, even though his mission was routine: to escort bombers from their target in Germany to the Danube River near Budapest. Yet, all went well. Encountering no enemy fire, when they reached the river the bombers continued on to their base in Italy, while Smith and the other escort planes attacked enemy airbases and other ground targets before resuming their flight home.

As they passed a freight yard outside Budapest, two of the four escort pilots peeled away to continue strafing the enemy below, but Smith was reluctant, since moments earlier he'd taken fire after destroying two German bombers parked at the edge of a field at the Budapest airport. Eventually, though, he, too, dipped down to offer his wingman protection and to take a few shots with his machine gun. He hit a freight car here, a building there.

Then he fired a shot that would end his military career.

"I hit something. I thought it was an ammunition dump-I don't know what it was, but there was a huge explosion and it blew up in my face."

As the plane flew through the fireball, the glass of Smith's cockpit shattered. The wings buckled. Part of the Mustang's red-tipped tail was blown off. His wingman sent him an urgent message: "Smith, you're leaking fuel."

"Just as I reached down to switch to the full tank," Smith recalls, "I thought the airplane hit something. It practically stopped in the sky. The cockpit immediately filled with smoke." Smith's plane wasn't leaking fuel at all. It was leaking engine coolant.

He had to get out of the plane, but he couldn't jump out without hitting the wing, so Smith unfastened his safety belt and began to turn the plane upside down. In that position, he figured his body could fall free from the plane. But the Mustang headed into a tailspin. In the turbulence, Smith's right foot wedged between the plane's steering controls that ran along the floorboard. The top half of his body hung outside the cockpit as the plane spiraled uncontrollably. The wind tore the oxygen mask off his face and Smith passed out.

When he woke, he was floating through the air tethered to his parachute. He must have managed to pull the ripcord of the parachute, which, by some miracle, had opened outside the cockpit and pulled Smith free-snapping his right hip into two pieces. When Smith looked up, though, he saw a hole in the chute and realized he was falling too quickly. Looking down, he saw that his right foot was twisted around backward. He passed out again.

Smith came to in the branches of a tree, a target for enemy soldiers firing at him from the ground. Once they realized he wasn't a threat, the Germans took him captive. For the next seven months, Smith was a prisoner of war, making do with what little food and heat the Germans supplied to their prison camps, but also spending a lot of time in hospitals, where he was treated for dysentery, bone infections, and injuries sustained from his final flight.

In 1945, when Allied soldiers liberated the prison camps, Smith weighed 70 pounds. He spent the next two years in and out of hospitals in the United States, but his injuries proved so severe that the U.S. Air Force granted him early retirement. Smith's military career was over at the age of 27.

Although Smith's lifelong dream had been to serve as a military aviator, that option was no longer open to him. Where could he turn to create a new future for himself? Smith fell back on his education. With two years of schooling in engineering and the promise of the GI Bill, Smith returned to the University of Iowa to complete his mechanical engineering studies. It turned out that earning his degree was the easy part.

After graduating in 1950, he tried for more than a year to land a job, but nobody wanted a black engineer. He applied for a position at General Electric (GE) and was turned down. Surprisingly, though, a few months later he received a letter from company officials asking him to contact them. They would do all they could to find him a position with GE. (It was years later that Smith learned why that letter arrived in his mailbox. His wife, Lois, had contacted GE and reprimanded the company for dismissing her husband because of race.)

Regardless, GE made a good choice and Luther Smith made the most of his backup plan. During his 37 years with the company, Smith used his knowledge of flying and his engineering education to file for six patents. The government patent office awarded him two.

It was the early 1950s and aerospace engineering was just getting off the ground. Planes were flying faster, farther, and higher. They had to be made of  materials that were stronger and lighter and yet able to withstand higher pressures and temperatures than they ever had before. It was up to Smith and the other engineers at GE to help develop these technologies.

Early in his career, Smith was assigned to work as a consultant to Wernher Von Braun, the German scientist in charge of rocket development for NASA. Smith perfected a means of sealing fuel containers and propellants against leaks for the German scientist. The result was a tandem seal with a rubber-like ring offering the first line of protection against leaks, and a second seal, made of steel, providing backup.

Smith employed similar technology to help the government create silent submarines. If a sub were equipped with stronger seals to keep water out of the vessel, the ship wouldn't need bilge pumps to get rid of the water that seeped in through the propellor shaft. Thanks to the GE project, U.S. Navy submarines became quieter and much more difficult for the enemy to detect.

These are the kinds of assignments Smith can talk about. Details of other GE projects-including developing the capability to send missiles to Russia during the Cold War-remain classified.

Despite his many professional successes, Luther Smith felt the effects of discrimination, even following his military service and after being hired by GE. Often he had to travel south from his home in New York or Pennsylvania for business. It was there, in places like Alabama and Florida, that Smith had to face the harsh realities of life before the civil rights movement.

On a business trip to Huntsville, Alabama, Smith had to drop off his peers at a white hotel and then drive across town to another hotel willing to accept blacks.

In Florida, Smith could stay in the hotels, but he wasn't allowed to eat in the dining rooms. A business dinner in his hotel room didn't sound very professional, so he called the hotel president and told him about his dilemma. Later, one of the men traveling with Smith received a call from the hotel manager. "The dining room and all other amenities," the manager said, "are available to Mr. Smith as long as he is a guest here."

As his career progressed, Smith was able to take larger steps toward fighting racism. When he headed part of a defense contract, Smith was responsible for choosing the company he'd work with to bring the project to fruition. He was eyeing a firm in Texas, but he was wary of race relations in the South, so he faced his concern and visited the company. "Your company is at the top of my list," he told officials there, "but I'm black." If he would have to face discrimination while working with them, Smith went on, he'd go elsewhere. The company agreed to his terms. "It was the pressure of economics," Smith says.

Today, Luther Smith and his wife, Lois, live in a modest home near Pennsylvania's Villanova University. With a right leg that's about seven inches shorter than his left due to the plane crash and later bone infections he suffered, he moves slowly with the help of two black canes. In his cluttered home office, he keeps several medals he received for serving his country: his Purple Heart, Distinguished Flying Cross, his Air Medal with six Oak Leaf Clusters, his Mediterranean Theater Campaign Ribbons, and his Prisoner of War Medal. Though the war continues to take a toll on his body, Smith talks about his service in the military with a smile on his face. He can't help but be proud of his fellow Red-Tailed Angels.

Smith also continues to work to get the recognition he believes the Tuskegee Airmen deserve. In 1995, he and several other veterans accompanied President Bill Clinton to Europe for the 50th anniversary of VE-Day. On the flight home, he managed to convince Togo West, then secretary of the U.S. Army and head of the U.S. 50th anniversary celebration commemorating the end of World War II, that the Tuskegee Airmen deserved their own memorial.

West agreed, suggesting a memorial at Arlington National Cemetery to be funded by the Tuskegee Airmen and supported by the government. The deal was made. On November 10, 1995, Smith and some of the other Tuskegee Airmen gathered just around the corner from the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier to stand before their own memorial-a tree and a commemorative plaque-at its dedication ceremony.

A decade later, Smith is one of only about 200 Tuskegee Airmen still living. Although he's 85 years old, he's committed to educating people about the Tuskegee Airmen and is writing a book to document his experience as a black man in a white military. He revels in the role of storyteller. After all, says Smith: "Racial equality in America started in the skies over Europe.