James H. Harvey III, 98, remembers standing in the front yard of his Pennsylvania home when he saw a group of P-40 military planes flying in formation above him. He thought that one day he’d like to be a pilot, too. So when he was 19, during the height of World War II, he went to the Army Air Corps recruiting office to sign up. He was told they weren’t taking enlistments.
“What they were really saying was they didn’t want me because of my color,” says Harvey, who is African American.
Months later he was drafted into the Army and assigned to a unit tasked with building airfields. Still, he dreamed of flying, so he decided to apply to the Army’s Aviation Cadet Training Program. There were 10 applicants — nine whites and Harvey— and he was one of only two who passed the exam to begin cadet training. From there, Harvey was sent to the segregated airfield in Tuskegee, Alabama, where Black pilots received their basic and advanced training.
“The instructor gave me maneuvers to practice. I practiced until I nailed it,” he says. “Flying is great. It’s great up there in that machine all by yourself. You’re in complete control. You can’t screw up — no room for error. None. I was the best at what I did.” Upon completing his combat training in April 1945, Harvey joined the 332nd fighter group, later known as the Tuskegee Airmen.
Just as the pilots were packing their bags to board a ship to Europe, they were told to stand down. The war in Italy was over, and the fight in the rest of the European theater was expected to wind down.
Four years later, with no war to fight, the Air Force staged its first-ever competition to find their “top gun” pilots.
A ‘Top Gun’ victory swept under the rug
For the competition, the Air Force chief of staff instructed each fighter group to send their three best pilots to participate in a 10-day aerial contest at the Las Vegas Air Force Base, now known as Nellis Air Force Base.
In addition to Harvey, the Tuskegee team included Capt. Alva Temple, 1st Lt. Harry Stewart Jr. and 1st Lt. Halbert Alexander, an alternate member.