In Fond Memory of Tuskegee Airman Carey Lee (Popo) McCrae Sr.
As was her habit, stopping by her elderly father's home in West Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to look in on him one day in 1995, my sister in law Jacq happened to answer the telephone. The man on the other end of the line had been searching for her father for over forty years.
That's how events unfolded on the day that Jacq learned that her father, Carey Lee McCrae Sr., the family called him Popo, had been a member of the Colored (African American) pioneers of aviation in the United States of America, the Tuskegee Airmen, a formerly classified Top Secret flying unit, known to many as the 'Lonely Eagles', who served during World War II.
The Tuskegee Airmen were all involved who served in the U.S. Army Air Corps program to train African Americans to fly and maintain combat aircraft. The Tuskegee Airmen included pilots, navigators, bombardiers, maintenance and support staff, instructors, and all the personnel who kept the planes in the air.
The squadron of all Black pilots, acting as escorts and flying planes with red stripes painted on their tails, gained notoriety for never losing a single plane to enemy fire, with many White pilots requesting them for escort duty.
For years, Jacq would secretly pull out old, sepia tinted and black and white photos of her father that her mother kept in the dining room cupboard, pictures of her father posed beside an airplane and with other men. She'd learned early not to ask any questions since doing so sent him into, what was viewed by the family, an inexplicably, foul mood.
Reflections on that period in her father's life are filled with bittersweet memories, many unspoken and known only to him and will be taken to his grave with him.
As it turned out, the man on the other end of the phone that day was Sgt. Edmund L. Wilkinson (Retired), of the 96th Air Service Group, 367th Service Squadron, from Popo's old unit. The sergeant, checking to make sure he had the right number, asked if Popo was also known as 'Dimples'. When my sister in law repeated the nickname, her father's ears perked up.
Sergeant Wilkinson was attempting to contact the remaining members of the squad to put together a collective record of their service. The squad's story is filled with great accomplishments and achievements. Many hardships due to racial discrimination were endured with dignity by the U.S. servicemen attached to the Tuskegee Airmen.
The stories of the Tuskegee Airmen were written before the United States Armed Forces were integrated. Segregated military units in the Armed Services were abolished when President Harry S. Truman issued Executive Order 9981 in 1948.
Known as 'Dimples', like many who wanted to serve, Popo lied about his age and was affectionately labeled 'The Baby' by his squad. He was seventeen when he entered the Armed Services, being inducted in July of 1943. In December 1943, he was assigned to the 332nd Fighter Group, a squad of Black pilots that were sent to serve in Italy.
After the phone call from Sergeant Wilkinson, Popo opened up a little about his time in the service, sharing a few war stories and snippets of information. Eventually, he handed over several envelops and documents that detailed his military career. Popo was inducted into the U.S. Army at Fort Meade in Maryland, later to be sent to Biloxi, Mississippi. Prior to his selection to serve in the Tuskegee Airmen in the 367th Service Squadron, he served as a parachute rigger.
In the beginning, the entire operation, which utilized Black pilots, was classified Top Secret. Documents in the name of Carey Lee McCrae, noting the squad designation, listing the 96th Service Group history, are stamped Secret and dated November, 1944, with declassification occurring in September, 1958. In his record, under Military Occupational Specialty, is listed Airplanes and Engines Mechanic 747.
The documents state the unit was:
.... constituted as the Headquarters, 96th Maintenance Group (Reduced) (Colored) and assigned to the Advanced Flying School, Tuskegee, Alabama, by the Adjutant General, Washington, D.C. Effective 13 March 1942.
Popo said the Black airmen were given the older model planes, the P39s and P37s, often referred to as 'death traps' or 'junkers' by the White pilots, who refused to fly in them.
Upon the arrival of Popo's segregated Colored (African American) unit, the 367th, in Monte Corvello, Italy, their weapons were confiscated by White U.S. officers. The unit was informed they were employees, not soldiers. Popo, along with others of the squad were trained as U.S. soldiers and were trained in the use of the weapons of that day during basic training.
Ever resourceful, one of the 'go to' guys of the unit acquired weapons for all of the disarmed men, which came in handy the evening German soldiers broke through barricades that had been erected by the men.
Popo spoke of traveling by train in Italy, on the upholstered seats in the trains and being ordered by White U.S. officers to surrender their seats to White German prisoners of war, sending the Black U.S. servicemen to the rear of the train, to sit on wooden benches.
Popo revealed his most shocking recollection that had occurred during his military life when he was interviewed by a community Philadelphia, Pennsylvania newspaper in 1996. He recalled during basic training experiencing what he called a "rude awakening."
Shortly after arrival at camp in Biloxi, Mississippi in 1943, Popo and other new Black recruits were gathered to watch the lynching of a Black officer on the base. He believed this was done to show them who was in control to keep them in line.
Because he returned from Europe after World War II, where he says he was treated relatively well by the people there, after serving with distinction in defense of his country, only to face the same racial discrimination upon his return to the United States, when asked years later why he never spoke of his service as a member of the legendary Tuskegee Airmen, he responded angrily with another question, "What good did any of it do me?"
Popo was honorably discharged on December 12, 1945. The Tuskegee Airmen Squadron officially disbanded in 1949, one year after President Truman’s Executive Order 9981 was issued.
Like so many Black soldiers who served during WWII, upon returning home, specifically in Popo's case, after having earned three Bronze Stars and other medals for his service, he learned the racial prejudice that existed before he left the U.S. had not changed upon his return in 1945.
While overseas he learned and spoke fluent Italian and was requested by name for his skill as a mechanic but, back home, none of that mattered. Having joined the U.S. Army out of high school, after returning back home, Popo was considered untrained and unskilled. He couldn't find work.
Ultimately, after attending school to take electronics courses, he found employment as an electrical technician at RCA Victor in 1948. Married in 1947, he and his wife, beginning in 1949, raised four children, two daughters and two sons.
On February 27, 2000, in honor of his 75th birthday, Popo was presented with a citation recognizing his achievements by Philadelphia City Council, with Pennsylvania congressional and state officials in attendance.
The citation stated, in part, that all were ….
.... joining the family and many friends of Carey Lee McCrae Sr. on the occasion of his 75th birthday and in recognition of his distinguished service to his country.
In 2008, at the age of 83, Popo was one of the surviving members of the 96th Air Service Group, 367th Service Squadron, who were christened by his former sergeant “the wind beneath their wings”, the wings of the pilots of the Tuskegee Airmen.
In the fall of 2008, the United States National Park Service, under the direction of the United States Department of the Interior, officially opened the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site at Moton Field in Tuskegee, Alabama during the weekend of October 10-12, 2008. The site is the first permanent site dedicated to the service and history of the 'Lonely Eagles'.
That same year, surviving members of the Airmen were invited to the George Lucas' Skywalker Ranch to have their experiences recorded for use as the basis for his film, originally set to begin filming the end of 2008, early 2009. Mr. Lucas was to be the executive producer for the project.
Mr. Lucas fulfilled his life long desire to tell the story of the Tuskegee Airmen when the film, Red Tails, premiered in theaters in the U.S. in January 2012.
The late Sgt. Edmund L. Wilkinson, of the 96th Air Service Group, 367th Service Squadron, wrote of the squad:
During WWII, for every fighter plane, 10 ground support personnel were required to insure the combat readiness of each airplane. While much has been written about the distinguished record of the men who flew those planes, and in recent years, that record has received increasing deserved recognition, little has been published about the support unit that made it possible for the Tuskegee Airmen pilot to make their mark in history. These units were the wind beneath their wings.
Those units were:
HQ & HG Squadron 366th Service Squadron / 367th Service Squadron
1,000th Signal Company (Avn)
1765th Ordinance Supply & Maintenance Company (Avn)
1766th Ordinance Supply & Maintenance Company (Avn)
43rd Medical Supply PLAT (Avn)
1051st QM Truck Co. (Avn)
1901st QM Truck Co. (Avn)
Carey Lee ‘Popo’ McCrae Sr. passed away late in the evening on Thursday, May 17, 2012 after battling prolonged illness at the age of 87.
I offer my deepest condolences to the McCrae Family as well as my warmest and heartfelt thanks to my sister in law Jacq for her aid and assistance by providing all of the information about Popo and his fellow Tuskegee Airmen who served in the 96th Air Service Group, 367th Service Squadron.