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Beline Obeid
August 08, 2013
By Brad Lindberg

Staff Writer

YANKEE AIR MUSEUM — Looking beyond artifacts in a museum exhibition case to the stories they represent helps put history into context.

At the Yankee Air Museum at Willow Run Airport in Ypsilanti, there’s a display about the all-black Tuskegee Airmen fighter pilots of World War II.

The Airmen’s accomplishments become more tangible by reading “Red Tail Captured,” the autobiography of one of its Detroit-area veterans, retired Lt. Col. Alexander Jefferson.

The book is available at the Grosse Pointe Public Library.

Meeting Jefferson brings it all to life.

At 91, Jefferson’s retains the scrappiness a nation needs of its youth to win wars.

“I’m a survivor,” Jefferson said. “Oh, my God, what a life.”

A P-51C Mustang fighter plane, painted with the distinctive red tail that Jefferson flew in Europe as a member of the U.S. Army Air Corps 332nd fighter group, is among nearly 50 warbirds and military jets appearing this weekend, Aug. 10-11, at Thunder Over Michigan Air Show at Willow Run Airport.

Gates are open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. both days.

Attractions include high-speed flying demonstrations and simulated ground attacks.

WWII and Vietnam reenactments are complete with infantry, U.S. and enemy armor, Huey helicopters and a gunship.

The schedule is:

10:30 a.m.: World War II air and ground battle reenactment,

11 a.m.: aerobatic teaser,

11:45 a.m.: opening ceremonies with a flag drop,

12 p.m. to 4 p.m.: flying demonstrations and Vietnam battle reenactment.

Tickets for adults cost $35, or $30 in advance. Youths aged 15 and younger are admitted free. Parking costs $15, or $10 in advance.

Proceeds help support the museum, a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization, plus area charities.

Final mission

On Jefferson’s 19th and last mission of the war, the Red Tails flew from their base in Italy to destroy a Nazi radar station on the coast of southern France.

It was Aug. 12, 1944 — 69 years ago next Monday.

Jefferson was 22 and, judging by photographs in his book, too skinny for his uniform.

“I went low across the top of the target,” he said. “A goddamn shell came up through the floor and holed the top of the canopy.”

Fire streamed from the cockpit floor.

“I pulled up to about 800 feet and bailed out,” Jefferson said. “I think I was doing about 400 mph.”

He glimpsed the red tail flash by.

“I pulled the D-ring and the parachute popped and I’m in the trees,” Jefferson said. “Trees kept me from hitting the ground.”

A German soldier approached.

“You got me,” Jefferson told him.

So began nine months internment at Stalag Luft III prison camp in Poland. The camp remains famous for the Great Escape of 76 prisoners a few months prior to Jefferson’s arrival.

German guards treated Jefferson well — “As an officer and a gentleman,” he said.

Food was lousy.

“You know the old saying, wine, women and song?” Jefferson said. “The first week, you forget about the wine. The second week, you forget about music. The third week, you forget about women. What do you remember? Food. A loaf of bread weighed about nine pounds because it was half saw dust.”

Upon his liberation and disembarking from the RMS Queen Mary in New York harbor in 1945, a sign on the dock ordered white people one way and blacks the other, although in words not so nice.

“Same old thing,” said Jefferson, shaking his head. “Coming back home.”

Aim high

Jefferson’s paternal great-grandfather was born of a slave woman. He opened a school in Augusta, Ga., that developed into Morehouse College.

Jefferson’s father, a laborer employed throughout the Great Depression, made him read the daily newspaper.

His mother graduated from Clark University and taught school until marriage.

“We had a home life that was secure,” Jefferson said.

The formerly vibrant, Polish neighborhood of his boyhood on 28th Street north of Michigan Ave., on Detroit’s westside has no resemblance to the abandoned houses and vacant lots of today.

“Our house is gone,” Jefferson said.

So are the movie theaters and bakery he walked to.

“We could walk all over Detroit,” Jefferson said. “You didn’t have to worry about violence.”

Growing up brought lessons of racism.

“There were places I could not go as a black person, areas I couldn’t buy a house,” he said. “Drive through Dearborn, the cops would stop me.”

The Air Corps was segregated when Jefferson joined in 1943.

After flight training in Tuskegee, Ala., he flew P-39 Airacobras at Selfridge Field, forerunner of the Air National Guard base in Harrison Township.

A unique fighter plane, the P-39’s engine is mounted behind the cockpit. The propeller shaft runs forward between the pilots legs. A .37 mm cannon shoots out the propeller hub.

During a low-level training mission to Mount Pleasant, Toledo and back up the Detroit River, Jefferson and other pilots flew under the Ambassador Bridge.

“The instructor said, ‘I don’t want to see anybody over 50 feet,’” Jefferson said.

The lead pilot maintained course and altitude under the bridge’s center span, suspended 152 feet above the Detroit River.

“Now, if you’re No. 2, what are you going to do?” Jefferson said. “Would you be chicken and go up and around? Hell, no. All of us went under the bridge.”

After the war, Jefferson taught in Detroit public schools. He retired in 1979 as an assistant principal.

“Aim high,” he advises youngsters. “In order to fight the system today, use your brains. Believe in yourself. Be ready. Never quit.”

Jefferson said life is beautiful.

“All you have to do is survive,” he said.

The Yankee Air Museum is at 47884 D St., Belleville. From the Grosse Pointes, take I-94 west to Belleville Road. Turn right to Tyler, turn left, then right on Beck and left into air show parking fields. For more information, visit yankeeairmuseum.org or call the museum at (734) 483-4030.

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