Leader Blues

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

TOP STORY >> Tuskegee legend at holiday reception

Milton Crenchaw of Little Rock (left), an original Tuskegee airman flight instructor, visits Sunday with Col. Greg Otey, the 19th Airlift Wing commander, during the commanders’ holiday reception at the Little Rock Air Force Base Conference Center.

Leader Executive Editor

A tall, elderly man stood in a far corner in a large banquet room at Little Rock Air Force Base on Sunday afternoon during the holiday reception hosted by the wing commanders.

The older gentleman stood in front of a Christmas tree near where a small band played holiday music.

He stood tall and erect in his elegant dark suit and gray tie. He looked like a former ballplayer from the old Negro Leagues — maybe Buck O’Neill — but he had the self-confidence of an ex-pilot, and maybe that’s why he was at the base for the reception.

You knew he was somebody significant, an historic figure, even if you didn’t recognize him. You introduced yourself to the gentleman, and he gripped your arm, as if he were about to give you an important history lesson.

Sure enough, he did.

He said his name was Milton Crenchaw, and he was from Little Rock. He became a pilot 70 years ago.

Crenchaw said, “Tuskegee airman.”

He was a civilian flight instructor down in Alabama in 1940 and helped train the nation’s first black airmen who distinguished themselves during the Second World War.

“Do you know how old I am?” he asked.

Crenchaw will be 91 years old next month, but he still looks like he could fly a plane. His vision seems as good as it ever was, and even with music in the background, he could hear you just fine.

He’s relaxed, grabs some food and sits down at a table. He’s having a good time, and he doesn’t mind the attention.

The wing commanders — Col. Gregory Otey, commander of the 19th Airlift Wing, and Col. C.K. Hyde, commander of the 314th Airlift Wing — thank him for coming to the reception.

They know he’s a pioneer pilot who trained the nation’s black pilots in the early war years. He was there after the Second
World War as the Air Force was beginning to take shape as the first integrated branch in the military.

The Tuskegee airmen included not only the pilots and their crews, but also their support team and their instructors. Crenchaw is the last living Tuskegee flight instructor.

He graduated from Dunbar High School in 1937 in Little Rock and was attending the Tuskegee Institute in 1939. He learned to fly and gave up his studies after Sen. Harry Truman sponsored legislation in Congress letting black pilots serve in the civilian pilot-training program.

He signed up immediately and trained pilots at Tuskegee and Maxwell Fields. According to “Wings of America,” a history of the Tuskegee airmen, “Charles A. Anderson, pioneer Negro pilot, has been chief pilot since the school opened. At the start he was assisted by Milton Crenchaw, Charles R. Foxx and Forrest Shelton. Instructors Foxx and Crenshaw have since been promoted to squadron commanders.”

Crenchaw was 20 years old.

The Tuskegee airmen started training in 1942, just months after America went to war. The all-black 99th Pursuit Squadron was soon formed, commanded by Col. Benjamin O. Davis Jr., who was promoted to general after the Korean War. (His father, Benjamin O. Davis Sr., was the country’s first black general.)

Nearly 1,000 airmen had graduated from the Negro Air Corps pilot-training program. They flew more than 200 bomber-escort missions and thousands of sorties over Europe, destroyed hundreds of German aircraft and received hundreds of air medals and more than 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses.

According to an Air Force history, “450 were sent overseas for combat assignment. During the same period, about 150 lost their lives while in training or on combat flights. These black airmen managed to destroy or damage over 409 German airplanes, 950 ground units and sank a battleship destroyer.”

The Germans, amazed that black pilots could fly in combat, called them “Schwarze Vogelmenschen” — “black birdmen.”

A couple of years after the war, President Truman ended segregation in the military. The Air Force, which was formed in 1947, was integrated immediately and the other services followed.

Crenchaw was later assigned to Fort Sill, Okla., and to other military bases and then returned to Little Rock, where he taught aviation at Philander Smith College. His father, the Rev. Joseph Crenchaw, helped found the NAACP in Arkansas.

Milton told us about his grandfather, a slave who fought in the Confederate Army with Robert E. Lee and Nathan Bedford Forest, the Confederate general who founded the Ku Klux Klan after the Civil War.

Milton remembers meeting Forest’s great-grandson, Nathan Bedford Forest III, an Army officer who joined the Army Air Corps and became a lieutenant general. He was the first general to die in the Second World War, when his plane was shot down over Germany.

Crenchaw has received many honors over the years. He was inducted into the Arkansas Aviation Hall of Fame in 1998. In 2007, Gov. Mike Beebe honored him for his historic contributions as a Tuskegee flight instructor.

Also that year, Crenchaw was inducted into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame, and the Tuskegee airmen received the Congressional Gold Medal from President Bush.

You’d think Milton is ready to take it easy, but he’s working on his autobiography with Edmond Davis, to be called “Airkansan: The Legacy of Milton Crenchaw .”

He’ll probably autograph copies for you at Little Rock Air Force Base.