World War II Flying 'Ace' Salutes Racial Progress, By Gerry J. Gilmore
(EXCERPT) American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Feb. 20, 2004 * Decorated World War II aviator and "Ace"
Lee Andrew Archer Jr., 84, says he dreamed of becoming a fighter pilot
at an early age.
The Yonkers, N.Y.-born veteran recalled reading comic books during his
boyhood that featured illustrated stories depicting World War I duels
in the skies between Germany's Baron von Richthofen and allied fliers.
"I wanted to be a pilot," Archer said at a Feb. 19 National Black
History Month commemoration ceremony at Veterans Affairs Department
headquarters, noting that watching planes take off and land at a small
airport near his family's summer home in Saratoga, N.Y., also whetted
his desire to fly.
A self-described natural competitor, Archer said he pledged to himself
back then that he, too, would one day battle America's enemies from
the cockpit of a fighter plane.
The steely-eyed African-American eventually realized his goal: he
became a member of the U.S. Army Air Corps' famed Tuskegee Airmen
during World War II. During the 169 combat missions he flew in the
European Theater, Archer was credited with downing five enemy
aircraft, earning him the coveted title of "Ace."
Archer, the keynote speaker at the ceremony, noted that about 900
African- Americans were trained to be pilots at a military camp near
Tuskegee College, later renamed Tuskegee University, in Alabama. Of
these service members, he added, 450 saw combat, more than 60 were
killed and 32 were shot down and became prisoners of war.
The Tuskegee Airmen, he said, flew a variety of combat missions in
Europe, totaling 200, and destroyed about 500 enemy aircraft and a
destroyer. And the Tuskegee Airmen never lost a bomber to the enemy
during allied B-17 and B-24 bomber formation escort duties, Archer
Archer said he was a sophomore at New York University in early 1941
when he decided to enlist in the Army Air Corps to become a pilot. At
the time, however, the U.S. military didn't allow African-Americans to
serve as pilots. And although he passed the preliminary pilot's test
with flying colors, Archer was assigned to Camp Wheeler, Ga., as a
In 1942, the government decided to train a select group of
African-American applicants for military flying duty * a decision,
Archer noted, that was rumored to have been precipitated by Eleanor
Roosevelt, the wife of then- President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Archer
said he reapplied for pilot's training and was accepted, earning his
wings in 1943.
Yet, before and after they won their wings, Archer said he and the
other Tuskegee Airmen had to endure the widespread racism that was
prevalent across the U.S. armed forces before President Harry S.
Truman's 1948 order that desegregated America's military.
Archer said that a mid-1920s U.S. War Department study was responsible
for much of the shoddy treatment African-American service members
experienced before Truman's desegregation edict. That study, he
pointed out, essentially said African-Americans didn't have the
intelligence or courage necessary for rigorous combat duties * even
though U.S. African-American combat troops had fought with documented
courage and Úlan alongside French forces against the Germans during
World War I.
So, although Archer was preeminently qualified to be a fighter pilot,
his coffee-colored skin at first proved to be a hindrance to his
However, Archer did become an Army Air Corps pilot, and flew P-40
Tomahawk, P- 39 Air Cobra, P-47 Thunderbolt, and P-51 Mustang fighters
during World War II, earning the rarely awarded Distinguished Flying
Cross among numerous other decorations.
The Army Air Corps became the U.S. Air Force in 1947, Archer said,
noting he performed weather squadron hurricane hunting patrols after
World War II and served during the Korean War. He retired as a
lieutenant colonel with 29 years of service in 1970.
Archer left the service for continued success in the civilian realm as
a corporate officer for firms such as General Foods, Phillip Morris
and others, noting he'd also been involved in the start up of
"Essence" magazine and other African-American-owned enterprises.
The "Tuskegee Experiment," Archer noted, proved that African-American
pilots could fly and fight as well as their white counterparts and
played a key role in Truman's decision to desegregate the U.S.
military, which in turn opened up opportunities for all
"The country has changed, and it has changed a lot" with regard to
race relations, Archer observed, in part because of the
accomplishments of the Tuskegee Airmen and other African-American
service members during World War II and of those who followed.
Yet, although race relations across the military and American society
have greatly improved since the 1940s, Archer noted, they still aren't
as good as they should be. But he added that today's generation of
African-American military leaders will continue to build upon the
successes of their predecessors.
"This country can be what it is supposed to be, and what it claims to
be," Archer said. "It is in the hands of new troops now, and I want to
wish them luck. I personally see the best for them and for their
country, which is my country, too," he concluded.
Related Web Sites: Tuskegee Airmen [
Department of Veterans Affairs [
DoD Celebrates African-American History Month
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