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CHARLESTON, S.C. — Even before the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Hiram E. Mann knew he wanted to fly.
As a kid growing up in Cleveland, he was fascinated by Charles Lindbergh's flight across the Atlantic. He even built balsa wood airplane models that were powered by tightly wound rubber bands.
So when he was told it would be impossible for him to fly for the military, it was a splash of cold water in his face — even in the days of segregation.
"That ticked me off," Mann said, referring to the letter that informed him there were no available separate training fields set up for blacks in America. "I threw the letter away."
Years later, Mann would take to the sky as a fighter pilot with the Tuskegee Airmen, more specifically the 332nd Fighter Group.
Mann, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, visited the Charleston Air Force Base earlier this month to tell about his life as a World War II pilot escorting American bombers over Europe at the stick of a P-51.
Part of that story was on the big screen this year in the Hollywood film "Red Tails," though Mann, 91, said the toughness of Tuskegee life before the combat missions remains under-told.
The Tuskegee pilots were part of the wave of black servicemen allowed new roles in the military as social pressures forced open once-closed doors of opportunity. Before, flying was strictly cut off, part of the racial separation enforced throughout the services.
Thousands of blacks volunteered and some received their World War II training at the Army airfield outside Walterboro, west of Charleston. That training was not always smooth, and hostile tempers arose from officers and civilians opposed to the Tuskegee idea.
During his talk, Mann, of Titusville, Fla., did not go into many details of the 48, sometimes terrifying, missions he flew. But he remembered how important it was to shadow wounded bombers coming back from their runs, sending two planes out to escort "each straggler."
Battlefield successes "proved we were comparable, and capable, to any white unit," he said.
In addition to the Mustang, Mann also flew the P-40 "Warhawk" and the P-47 "Thunderbolt."
When the war was over, Mann came back to an America that still operated by racial divide.
"We came back home on a segregated Liberty ship," he said. The celebration on the pier was small and he was quickly put on a train to Fort Dix, N.J. "That was our welcome home," he said.
Mann's story was well-received by the 40 Air Force personnel in attendance.
"I know there is no way in the world I get to wear these stripes without what you did," Robert Scarlett, a chief master sergeant in maintenance and support with the 437th Airlift Wing, said.
Mann said he was proud of his role as an aviation pioneer. "This is my country. I'm proud of it, even as bad as I was treated at those times," he said.