A-Train: Memoirs of a Tuskegee Airmanby Charles W. Dryden, Benjamin O. Davis Jr (Foreword by)
A-Train is the story of one of the black Americans who, during World War II, graduated from Tuskegee (AL) Flying School and served as a pilot in the Army Air Corps’ 99th Pursuit Squadron. Charles W. Dryden presents a fast-paced, balanced, and personal account of what it was like to prepare for a career traditionally closed to African Americans, how he coped
A-Train is the story of one of the black Americans who, during World War II, graduated from Tuskegee (AL) Flying School and served as a pilot in the Army Air Corps’ 99th Pursuit Squadron. Charles W. Dryden presents a fast-paced, balanced, and personal account of what it was like to prepare for a career traditionally closed to African Americans, how he coped with the frustrations and dangers of combat, and how he, along with many fellow black pilots, navigators, bombardiers, and crewmen, emerged with a magnificent war record.
Under the command of Colonel Benjamin O. Davis Jr., the Tuskegee airmen fought over North Africa, Sicily, and Europe, escorting American bomber crews who respected their "no-losses" record. Some were shot down, many of them were killed or captured by the enemy, and several won medals of valor and honor. But the airmen still faced great barriers of racial prejudice in the armed forces and at home. As a member of that elite group of young pilots who fought for their country overseas while being denied civil liberties at home, Dryden presents an eloquent story that will touch each and every reader.
—Military History of the West
"Dryden is the archetype of both the first mainstream generation of black officers, and of the career reservists who were a mainstay of America’s armed forces during the first years of the Cold War."
- University of Alabama Press
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Memoirs of a Tuskegee Airman
By Charles W. Dryden
The University of Alabama PressCopyright © 1997 Charles W. Dryden
All rights reserved.
"The accused will rise and face the court."
"Does the accused have anything to say before sentence is pronounced?"
"Having found First Lieutenant Charles Walter Dryden, Serial Number AO 789 119, guilty as charged of one count of violating the 96th Article of War, this general court-martial sentences Lieutenant Dryden to be dismissed from the United States Army Air Corps."CHAPTER 2
Dismissed from the United States Army Air Corps!
Dismissed from ...
Dismissed ... Dismissed ... dismissed!!!
The words rang in my ears. Rattled around my skull. Ricocheted through my brain: from the cell that interprets language, telling me, "Dismissal means dishonorable discharge, loss of citizenship"; to the cell that controls body temperature—it went haywire as I broke into a cold sweat in that hot, humid courtroom; to the cell that controls self-control—I began trembling uncontrollably. The truth is I "tweaked" harder than I had ever "tweaked" before and thought: "Thank God for a tight sphincter to control my bowels."
Then came the questions. Questions I asked myself: "Why me?" "How come this has happened to me?" "Why have I been tried and convicted and sentenced by general court-martial?"
Everyone who knows me knows that I have been gung ho about flying all my life. That I am proud to wear the silver wings of a U.S. Army Air Corps pilot and the silver bars of a first lieutenant. That I am grateful to God for having survived combat. So: Why? Why? Why?
No need to ask, really. I knew the answers: I was court-martialed because I had led a flight of four P-39 "Airacobras" on a low-altitude pass across Walterboro Army Air Base on a Saturday in May 1944. How low? The fact is the control tower deck was seventy-five feet above the ground. When asked on the witness stand how high the planes appeared to be as they flew across the base, the control tower operator on duty at the time said: "I looked down at them as they passed the tower!"
In short, we were "buzzing."
At that time buzzing was severely frowned upon by military brass because a rash of incidents had occurred recently involving crashed airplanes, injured or dead military pilots and civilians, and destroyed property. Just shortly before my transgression a particularly gruesome incident involved a military pilot who buzzed a pair of fishermen in an open boat on a lake in Florida. He flew so low that his propeller decapitated one of the men in the boat. That did it! The War Department put out the word that any future buzzing would be punished by dismissal from the service.
Did I know this? Yes, I had read it in an Army Air Corps flying safety bulletin.
Then why buzz? Why defy the rules? Why risk the loss of my flying career? ("A fate worse than death," I thought. "After all, flying is my whole life!")
The questions flashed through my mind and, as many persons facing death have testified, my whole life passed in review, as if to provide answers.CHAPTER 3
That is how, lisping, a typical two-year-old, tearing paper into bits and throwing them into the air, tried to tell the world that: "I want to, I was born to, I must fly!"
That is what "Sister Vie" used to tell me about my early yearning for the sky. To me she was "Mom," the gentlest, most devout, loving mother anywhere, ever. Christened Violet Adina Buckley, her middle name should have been Patience. I remember Mom teaching me to count by tens, even before I began first grade, by using bundles of match sticks, ten to a bundle. And spelling words using phonetics—the "at" family: bat, cat, hat and so on—long before anyone ever thought about Sesame Street. And grammar. The "King's English" way of proper speaking, although I must admit that answering, "It is I" when asked, "Who is it?" never did sound right to me. She needed patience, a lot of it, to get me started on the road to education.
Together, she and Dad emphasized four things in my rearing: love and serve God, obey your parents, be loyal to your family, and get a good education.
Dad was ... Dad. Not Pop. Not a "take-me-out-to-the-ball-game" sort of father and yet not a rigid disciplinarian. Make no mistake, he was firm in demanding no-nonsense obedience, and I made sure to make as few mistakes as possible to avoid encounters between his razor strop and my hind parts. But I felt his love for me from his tender lullabies as he rocked his firstborn infant to sleep. We never went to baseball or football games because he did not know those games. He knew cricket because he was a Jamaican: A trip or two to see a cricket match at Van Courtlandt Park in the Bronx was about as close as I ever got to sharing fun with my father at a spectator sporting event.
He could swim like a fish and delighted the family with weekend picnics to Long Island beaches (Coney Island, Rockaway Beach, Riis Park Beach) and Interstate Park on the New Jersey side of the Hudson. Half the fun was going and coming home on the Long Island Railroad trains to the beaches and the Dyckman Street ferry across the Hudson River to Interstate Park. The other half was wading in the surf and riding the amusements at Coney Island: For me no roller coaster was too fast, no ferris wheel too high, no merry-go-round too dizzying. Aboard them I was "flying"; I was close to my fantasy heaven.
Charles Levy Tucker Dryden, "Dad" to me, was my first hero. A sergeant in the Jamaican Expeditionary Force during World War I, he was deployed to Europe by way of Egypt. His unit came under heavy fire in Belgium and he caught a hunk of shrapnel in his chest. It came within a quarter inch of ending these memoirs before they could even begin.
Before his military stint he was a teacher at Mico College (for men) in Kingston. Violet was a teacher at next-door Wolmers College (for women). They met and fell in love but had to postpone marriage plans until Dad's return from the war. Keeping the faith until the Armistice, Mom moved to New York City to await her beloved "Robin." Nine months, two weeks, five days later, on September 16, 1920, I saw the light of day, blessed from the start with two nurturing, loving, in-love parents.
To Mom's five sisters, Dad was "Brother Rob," and that became his nickname, used by all adult kinfolk. They were my aunts, all named for flowers: Lilly, Daisy, Myrtle, Hyacinth, and Iris. Affectionately, they called my mother "Sister Vie." So to all our kinfolk my parents were "Brother Rob and Sister Vie"—compatible, unflappable, devout cherubim and seraphim.
My aunts Lilly, Daisy, and Myrtle helped rear me, more than they will ever know. Older by a few years, their bearing, presence, manners, and behavior taught me what to expect of proper ladies when I began dating. Hyacinth and Iris, one year older and younger than I, respectively, were more like sisters to me, though when we were young they taunted me by insisting that I address them as "Aunt." Of course, in later years whenever introductions to young suitors were required, they declined the title, threatening painful consequences if I dared say, "May I introduce you to my Aunt—–."
My good fortune, of being born into a tranquil home and supportive family, increased six years later when my brother Denis Alvin was born and when, after another five years, along came my sister Pauline. Thus my world was complete in a family with both parents present plus a brother and a sister, because of whom I learned how to share, unselfishly. And many kinfolk close by who helped teach me respect for elders, knowledge of my Jamaican roots and folklore, and loyalty to family. And last but certainly not least, they taught me about the universal authority shared by all adults—kinfolk, teachers, preachers, policemen, yea even total strangers—that all children must behave and display good manners at all times, in all places, especially away from home. To disgrace one's family by misbehavior was to court disaster—like a good, this-hurts-me-more-than-it-hurts-you spanking.
In his quiet but forceful way my Dad used to say: "Son, you have two sets of ears. One set on your headsides, the other set on your backside. And if I can't get you to hear through your ears up top, I know you will hear through your bottom."
Education was the order of the day, day after day, school term after school term. Summer vacations included reading at least one book of our choice and attending some craft activity at a local school or playground. And year round there was time for a hobby.
My hobby was building model airplanes. Solid models: The Boeing P-12B and Curtis P-6E were my favorites, complete with U.S. Army Air Corps insignia on the wings, fuselage, and tail. Rubber band-powered flying models whose parts were painstakingly laid out on wax paper covering the blueprints of the model, fastened on top of a card table with straight pins; the ribs and spars and stringers held in place by more pins until airplane acetate glue, squirted carefully on adjacent parts, hardened and bonded them together. Then came the tough task of covering the fuselage, wings, and tail surfaces with thin tissue paper that was made taut by being sprinkled lightly with warm water. Growing up, my pride and joy were my model airplanes suspended from strings strung across the ceiling of my room from wall to wall to wall. Everyone on the block knew about the crazy Black kid who wanted to fly.
Spare time, after homework and home chores, was spent reading anything and everything about flying, especially a pulp magazine, G-8 and His Battle Aces. Each month I could hardly wait to read the latest feats of "derring-do" by "G-8," the fictional Yank World War I pilot, and his squadron of "battle aces" flying Spad VIIs as they shot down the hated Boche in Albatrosses, Fokkers, and Pfalzes above the trenches in France. Every child has a fantasy world. Mine was flying as a bird, higher than the highest mountain, farther than the ends of the earth, faster than a shooting star.
Apart from, and higher in priority than my hobby, was book learning in school. Whenever an adult visited, the first thing said to kids was, "How's school?" Kinfolk or strangers, it was almost always the same greeting. Not "Hello!" or "How are you?" but "How are you doing in school?" So, at an early stage I got the message that book learning could earn points, and rewards, from adults. Ignoring the benefits of education earned penalties. My Aunt Myrtle drove the latter point home painfully when I was in first grade. One day when she visited our home she gave me a quarter to buy a composition book for school. Quickly forgetting why she had given me the money, I ran around the corner to the candy store and bought the shiny cap pistol I had seen in the window. A couple days later she visited again and said, "Charlie, let me see the composition book you bought."
I thought: "Uh, oh! Now I remember why she gave me the money."
I said: "I forgot what you told me to buy, Aunt Myrtle, but I got this cap pistol that I always wanted. Isn't it a beauty? It shoots a roll of caps and ... and ... ouch!"
"Young man," she said, grabbing me by the ear, "this will help you remember next time you are told to do something for your schoolwork. Now you show me where the store is and we will return the cap pistol and get the book you should have gotten in the first place!"
I got the point. Education was high on the list of priorities when I was growing up. With that kind of prompting at home to excel, my teachers had no trouble with me. The truth is I really enjoyed school. It was a case of the appetite growing with the eating. Hard work with studies brought good grades, good grades brought rewards, rewards encouraged hard work, and so on.
By the time my formal education began in kindergarten at P.S. 169, in the Washington Heights section of upper Manhattan, I was ready. I could spell. I was proud that I could spell. And I got into trouble because I could spell: One day I spelled a four-letter word I had heard for the first time in my life and didn't know that it was a "bad" word. Wrote it on a piece of paper that had my name on it. As luck would have it the slip of paper fell out of my pocket. My teacher found it. Shocked by my profane prose, she said to me, sternly, "Charles, I want to see you after school!"
"Yes, Ma'am," I quavered, wondering why.
After all the other children had left to go home she confronted me with my paper. My punishment was a mouthwashing with some harsh brown laundry soap. I don't remember that teacher's name but I will never forget the incident.
Another "unforgettable" experience at P.S. 169 happened during a recess play period. Standing in a circle and rotating our hands in circles in front of our tummies, as if winding yarn, we sang with the teacher leading the chorus:
Wind, wind nigger baby
Wind, wind nigger baby
Pull and pull
And one, two, three.
I sang as loudly and as lustily as any of the other kids. In all my five years, until then, I had never heard "the" word, the hated word, the hateful word. It was never used in our household.
At supper that night Mom asked, "Son, what did you do at school today?"
"We learned a new song."
"Oh? Would you sing it for us?"
"Sure, Mom." And I sang the ditty.
Dead silence, for just a moment, Mom and Dad looking at me with strange expressions on their faces. Anger? Disbelief? Shock? I saw all of these but most of all, anger! Breathing hard, speaking in a tone I had never heard before, Dad said: "Son, I am not angry with you, but don't you ever sing that song again. Nigger is a bad word and we never use it. We will talk to your teacher about it, so don't you worry, Son, y'hear?"
Someone talked to someone at school. Either Mom or Dad. Perhaps both. In any case we never sang that song again. That was my initiation into the world of hate and hurt based upon skin color.
When the time came for me to begin first grade we had moved from 164th Street between Edgecombe and Amsterdam Avenues in Washington Heights to 152nd Street and Saint Nicholas Avenue on Sugar Hill. P.S. 46 between Amsterdam and Saint Nicholas Avenues on 156th Street became my school home for the next six years.
Although I cannot recall all of my teachers, I do remember fondly three who worked hard to fill my head with knowledge and ambition. Like many a schoolboy, once upon a time I had a crush on a teacher. The object of my affections presided over sixth grade at P.S. 46: Mary Elizabeth Sullivan, I shall never forget. She was so kind and patient. And beautiful. I was inspired to study hard and excel—to please her.
Graduation from elementary school was both good and bad for me. Good because I was promoted from P.S. 46 to attend Edward Walmsby Stitt Junior High School, J.H.S. 164, at Edgecombe Avenue and 164th Street. Bad because I was leaving my beloved Miss Sullivan. Later at home, alone in my room, I sobbed my heart out for my lost love.
Among my teachers at Stitt was a lady who taught me to love the correct use of language "by the rules." In me Miss Laura Balfour had a pupil with ears attuned to the proper use of English. From twelve years of hearing my Jamaican parents speak "King's English" I had learned the what and how of good English. In her grammar class Miss Balfour taught me the why.
In my last year at Stitt my classmates elected me class president, my first leadership opportunity. More important, we were taught algebra by Miss Agnes L. Mackin, the best of all my teachers. Miss Mackin made algebra crystal clear to the entire class and taught us to love math. Lucky for me, because in order for my dream of flying to come true I needed the curriculum of a science high school with high standards and good credentials. Peter Stuyvesant High School on the lower east side of Manhattan was the place to go. Stuyvesant had tough entrance requirements, but I got in.
Four years later I got out with a diploma and acceptance in the freshman class at City College of New York (CCNY). During the four years at Stuyvesant I had made some new friends, two of whom later shared military service with me at Tuskegee Army Air Field (TAAF)—Willie Batten and Leroy Gillead. Several other boyhood friends from high school days also showed up at TAAF during World War II, including Vinnie Campbell, Kenneth Frank, Conrad Johnson, Humphrey Patton, and Mike Smothers. Two others crossed my path in other places at later times: Horace McCoy in Oran, Algeria, during World War II, and Bryce Anthony in Japan during the Korean War. More about them in later chapters.
Matriculation at CCNY was a compromise and a blessing—and a near disaster—for me:
A compromise, because I really wanted to be either a military or an airline pilot. However, because neither the U.S. Army Air Corps nor any airlines was open to African American pilots, I would have settled for an aeronautical engineering degree at New York University. Unfortunately, my family could not afford the tuition at NYU. My next option was tuition-free CCNY, where I enrolled in the School of Mechanical Engineering (CCNY did not offer the aeronautical engineering degree).
Excerpted from A-Train by Charles W. Dryden. Copyright © 1997 Charles W. Dryden. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
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Meet the Author
Lieutenant Colonel Charles W. Dryden is retired from the U.S. Air Force following 20 years of service with action during World War II and the Korean War. He holds an honorary doctorate of humane letters from Hofstra University.
Lieutenant General Benjamin O. Davis Jr.
is retired from the U.S. Air Force and is author of American: An Autobiography.
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