Bringing World War II Into The Classroom

On July 25, 2006, the Pennsylvania Veterans Museum screened the first in a series of educational films dealing with World War II: On Freedom’s Wings: Bound for Glory—The Legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen. The documentary, sponsored by the museum and produced by JPL Productions, was released for public distribution the same day. On Freedom’s Wings recounts the struggle of a small, determined band of black pilots for the right to train, fly and fight in the then-segregated U.S. Army Air Forces.

Training near the Tuskegee Institute at Moton Airfield, Ala., nearly 1,000 black volunteers earned their wings, with the first contingent flying missions in North Africa in 1943 as the 99th Fighter Squadron. Later expanded into the four-squadron 332nd Fighter Group, the Tuskegee Airmen escorted bombers of the Fifteenth Air Force over southern and eastern Europe, never losing a charge to an enemy fighter. Most important, they laid a significant cornerstone in the foundation of racial equality in the United States while proving to skeptics that black Americans had what it took to be successful combat pilots.

“The Army said we couldn’t operate complicated equipment, we were cowardly, we lacked coordination,” said Lee A. Archer, one of the highest-scoring pilots in the 332nd Fighter Group. “Most of it was fences, not truth—and we knew it.”

“They insisted on flying,” said Congressman Charles Rangel of New York, a Korean War infantry veteran who attended the screening. Rangel added that despite the prejudice against the airmen, they held to their conviction that “This is my country—we will correct what’s wrong here.” Added Congressman Curt Weldon of Pennsylvania: “They symbolize what’s right in the country. This film helps right that small part of that history of America.”

Also attending the special screening at the Rayburn Office Building in Washington, D.C., were Virgin Islands Representative Donna M. Christiansen and Assistant Secretary of the Navy B.J. Penn. Afterward, some of the 21 Tuskegee Airmen present for the film’s debut met with Senators Barack Obama of Illinois, Carl Levin of Michigan and Bill Nelson of Florida. In April, President Bush signed legislation sponsored by Rangel and Levin to present the Congressional Gold Medal to the Tuskegee Airmen.

Among the airmen at the screening was Colonel Charles E. McGee, who flew 136 combat missions in World War II, 100 ground-attack missions over Korea and 175 photoreconnaissance missions over Vietnam in the course of a 30-year Air Force career. Archer, a squadron mate of McGee’s, was also one of the group’s “top guns.” Although the Air Force has still not acknowledged his ace-making fifth victory—a Messerschmitt Me-109G that he drove into the ground—he was credited with four victories, including three Hungarian Me-109s in a single action on October 12, 1944.

Archer noted that his group commander, Lt. Col. Benjamin O. Davis Jr., discouraged his men from going after enemy fighters, which might have been sent in as decoys to entice them away from the bombers they were escorting.

The day after Archer’s triple victory, October 13, proved memorable for Luther H. Smith. Credited with having downed two enemy planes, Smith was flying his 133rd mission when he joined in a strafing attack on a railroad yard in Hungary, only to be caught in the explosion of an ammunition cache. Over Yugoslavia, he discovered that the blast had caused a leak in his radiator—when his engine suddenly seized and the plane fell into a tailspin that prevented him from bailing out as he released his parachute. “Really, that saved my life, because as the chute opened, it ripped me out of the aircraft,” Smith recalled. “But in the process, my leg got caught and I broke my hip.”

Smith lost consciousness and remembered nothing more until he found himself caught in a tree. He was captured by the Germans, taken to a hospital and, Smith said, treated well—better and with more respect, in fact, than he was by many of the white airmen in the POW camp where he sat out the rest of the war. The irony of that situation was not lost on Smith after the war. When he returned to the United States, he worked toward ending racial discrimination, like a great many of his comrades in arms.

The 37-minute documentary, scripted by Pulitzer, Peabody and Emmy award-winner Carleton Sherwood, is the latest in a series that the nonprofit Pennsylvania Veterans Museum is distributing to schools around the state, not only to educate students about World War II but also to provide them with firsthand accounts from actual participants in those momentous events. A 60-minute version of the film will be made available to public broadcasting and other television stations.

On Freedom’s Wing will be part of a series of films intended to supplement curricula on World War II history. Other films in the series will include WWII in Europe and WWII in the Pacific. Media (Pa.) Mayor Bob MacMahon, the museum’s founder and executive secretary, says the films are available to all 501 Pennsylvania school districts, in concert with associated lesson plans that have been prepared in accordance with the state’s academic standards.

Founded in 1999, the Pennsylvania Veterans Museum has exhibits and one- to two-minute loops describing such general subjects as D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge. The principal attractions, however, are interactive video kiosks that MacMahon says “use the formula of teaching World War II through the eyes of veterans.”

The museum is located in the Media Armory, at 12 East St. Further information can be found at the Web site www.paveteransmuseum.org, or by e-mail at info@paveteransmuseum.org.

Taps

Robert Carl Fumerton, the highest-scoring Canadian night fighter pilot of World War II, died on July 10, 2006, at the Muskoka Landing long-term care center in Huntsville, Ontario. He was 93.

Born in Fort Coulonge, Quebec, on March 21, 1913, Fumerton worked as a lumberjack, gold prospector and bush pilot in the Northwest Territories and the Yukon. When he joined the Royal Canadian Air Force in November 1939, the tight fit of his brawny body in the cockpit earned him the nickname “Moose,” but a slow roll he performed in a twin-engine Bristol Beaufighter prompted his commanding officer to say, “He’s a better pilot than I am.”

Fumerton arrived in Britain in August 1940 and participated briefly in the Battle of Britain before training to join No. 406 Squadron, the RCAF’s first night fighter unit. On September 1, 1941, Fumerton and his radar operator, Leslie P.S. “Pat” Bing, intercepted and shot down a Junkers Ju-88 for the first nocturnal aerial victory by an RCAF pilot. Soon afterward, Fumerton and Bing were transferred to No. 89 Squadron, RAF, in Egypt, where they downed three German bombers. On June 22, the duo was detached to the isle of Malta. By August 28, they had downed nine German and Italian night bombers and survived being shot down twice.

Returning to No. 406 Squadron—now equipped with de Havilland Mosquitoes—Fumerton scored his last victory on May 14, 1944, when he sent a Ju-88 into the English Channel. Fumerton’s decorations included the Air Force Cross and two awards of the Distinguished Flying Cross. After the war, he trained Nationalist air force pilots in China, but returned home after the Communist victory in 1949.

Lieutenant Colonel Besby Frank Holmes, USAF (ret.), Pacific War ace and participant in the long-range mission that killed Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, died of a stroke at Marine General Hospital, Greenbrae, Calif., on July 23, 2006. He was 88.

Born in San Francisco on December 5, 1917, Holmes was fishing off a pier as a teenager when he first saw a group of Boeing P-26 fighters fly over the water and decided, “I just gotta fly one of those things one of these days.”

On a December Sunday in 1941, two days after his 24th birthday, 2nd Lt. Holmes was nursing a hangover in a Honolulu church when he heard bombs falling. Still dressed in his brown pinstriped suit, he rushed to his Curtiss P-36 and took off to engage the Japanese planes attacking Pearl Harbor, though he failed to shoot any down.

Holmes later flew Bell P-39s and Curtiss P-40s during the Guadalcanal campaign, before switching to twin-engine Lockheed P-38G Lightnings with the 339th Fighter Squadron. In April 1943, American intelligence learned that Admiral Yamamoto, who had masterminded the attack on Pearl Harbor, was planning to visit Kahili airfield on Bougainville Island.

Holmes claimed that it was his suggestion to Vice Adm. William F. Halsey’s staff that led to a 400-mile operation to intercept and shoot down the Mitsubishi G4M1 “Betty” bomber in which Yamamoto was traveling. On April 18, Holmes flew one of 16 P-38s involved in the mission, which resulted in the destruction of two Bettys and three escorting Mitsubishi A6M3 Zeroes, while losing only one P-38 and its pilot.

Yamamoto’s death deprived the imperial navy of its most brilliant fleet admiral. Holmes, who was awarded the Navy Cross for his part in the mission, was credited with downing a Betty for his fifth and final victory, but controversy still rages over exactly who killed Yamamoto.

Continuing his career in the U.S. Air Force after World War II, Holmes commanded a fighter interceptor squadron in Japan during the Korean War, spent four years as chief of the Military Assistance Program in 17 Central and South American countries and served in Vietnam before retiring in 1968.

 

Originally published in the November 2006 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here