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.
“We as a race of people weren’t expected to do anything — everything was negative. The only thing left for us to do was go out and win this meet,” says Harvey.
The event consisted of a series of competitions to test the teams’ aerial skill and prowess. While their opponents were flying the Air Force’s latest planes, the Tuskegee Airmen were stuck with older, heavier aircraft.
“It didn’t matter, though,” Harvey says. “It’s the skill of the pilot that determines what’s going to happen. They were there to compete, and we were there to win.”
And winning is what the 332nd did, racking up high scores that Harvey remains proud of today. “When it was announced that the 332nd had won the trophy, the room was quiet. There was no applause or anything like that because we weren’t supposed to win it,” he says. “Little did I know that this was the last time the public would see the trophy for 55 years. Our victory was swept under the rug.”
The trophy mysteriously disappeared.
Nonetheless, Harvey went on to become the first Black pilot to ever fly a fighter jet in combat. He piloted 126 combat missions in the Korean War and retired from the Air Force in 1965. He received numerous military awards, including the Congressional Gold Medal, which was awarded to every Tuskegee Airman in 2007.
Recognition more than a half century later
Decades passed, the airmen’s gunnery trophy remained lost, and the annual Air Force Almanac still listed the winners of the 1949 competition as “unknown.”
In 1993, Stewart, one of the Tuskegee competitors, returned to Nellis Air Force Base and found documentation of their win. He presented it to the Air Force, correcting the record.
Ten years later, Zellie Orr, president of the Tuskegee Airmen chapter in Atlanta, made it her mission to find the actual trophy. After spending five days in the storage area of the National Museum of the Air Force in Ohio, she found it.
Still, even with the trophy now on display, the inaugural top gun winners had yet to receive any official recognition of their victory at Nellis Air Force Base.
Wish of a Lifetime from AARP heard about how the Tuskegee Airmen had never received official recognition at the original airfield where the 1949 competition was held. So they reached out to Harvey.
“My wish was to go to Nellis Air Force Base and see us listed right at the top, as far as the weapons meets go,” Harvey says.
Wish of a Lifetime contacted the Air Force Association to organize a ceremony to recognize Harvey and the 332nd fighter pilots.
On Jan. 13, 2022, at Nellis Air Force Base, a plaque was mounted in a commemoration ceremony honoring the historic moment in Tuskegee Airmen history.
“Today proves that if you believe in something and you stay at it, you’ll finally get the recognition,” said Harvey after the ceremony. “And this plaque, finally, after many years, will be at the top. Number one.”
This is the fifth episode from AARP Studios’ new documentary series Reporting for Duty. Each month you can expect a new inspirational story about veterans and military families at YouTube.com/aarp.
Aaron Kassraie writes about issues important to military veterans and their families for AARP. He also serves as a general assignment reporter. Kassraie previously covered U.S. foreign policy as a correspondent for the Kuwait News Agency’s Washington bureau and worked in news gathering for USA Today and Al Jazeera English.