• August 20, 2016

'Who You Are Is Always Changing,' Tuskegee Airman TellsCBU Audience

RIVERSIDE (Oct. 15, 2013)—"What you are never changes," said Buford A. Johnson, a retired U.S. Air Force master sergeant who served with the Tuskegee Airmen. "Who you are is always changing."

Johnson spoke about his experiences with racial segregation, obstacles and accomplishments as a Tuskegee Airman to a California Baptist University audience of about 350 on Oct. 14. The African-American group of pilots flew combat missions from 1941 to 1949 during World War II. 

"Once the Tuskegee experiment had begun, we weren't happy with that," he said. "African-American pilots trained diligently to be able to fly. They made the test really hard, but no one scored less than a 98. We wanted to be ready to go whenever we were asked to go."

As an example, Johnson recalled Col. Charles Magee, a fellow Tuskegee Airman, who accomplished 1,600 flight hours and flew 409 combat missions in three wars. 

"He was one of the ones told he wasn't courageous enough or that flying was too complicated for him," Johnson said, "but he flew more combat hours than anyone else."

More than 900 pilots graduated from the Tuskegee program before President Harry Truman signed a bill to integrate the military. Six of them, including Johnson, were sent to mechanic school. Johnson became a crew chief to help maintain the aircraft. 

"Most people had never seen a black mechanic," he said. "First thing, they gave me an airplane that had been cannibalized for parts for other planes. It couldn't fly, so they called it a hangar queen."

Johnson ordered parts, fixed up the plane and painted it. 

"After a month, I thought it was ready to go," he said. "I got a test pilot to take it up, and it was in better shape than the ones they had been flying."

Johnson said the legislation to desegregate the military only made sense to him. 

"There was no need to have a black Air Force and a white Air Force," he said. "Why couldn't we just have a U.S. Air Force? You can't tell a person's character by the color of his skin."