Tuskegee Airman Lt. Col. Alexander Jefferson signs a copy of his book, “Red Tail Captured, Red Tail Free: Memoirs of a Tuskegee Airman and POW,” Oct. 10 following a talk at the Southfield Public Library.

Tuskegee Airman Lt. Col. Alexander Jefferson signs a copy of his book, “Red Tail Captured, Red Tail Free: Memoirs of a Tuskegee Airman and POW,” Oct. 10 following a talk at the Southfield Public Library.

Photo by Donna Agusti


Local man details life as WWII Tuskegee Airman, POW

By: Kayla Dimick | Southfield Sun | Published October 16, 2018

 Southfield resident Derrick Williamson checks out Jefferson’s signature at the event.

Southfield resident Derrick Williamson checks out Jefferson’s signature at the event.

Photo by Donna Agusti

 Jefferson speaks to the crowd about his life as a Tuskegee Airman during World War II.

Jefferson speaks to the crowd about his life as a Tuskegee Airman during World War II.

Photo by Donna Agusti

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SOUTHFIELD — When Lt. Col. Alexander Jefferson crash-landed in Nazi-occupied France in 1944, the German guard who captured him somehow knew everything about him. 

“He helps me get out of the trees, and the German officer saw the little gold bar on my uniform, so he saluted. All I could do was return the salute,” Jefferson said. “When I got to interrogation, the German guard pulls out a book of the 332nd fighter group … and he opens it up, gets to my picture and says, ‘Lieutenant, isn’t that you?’”

Seventy-four years later, in the auditorium of the Southfield Public Library, Jefferson recounted his story about being captured as a Tuskegee Airman with the 332nd Red Tails in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II — and how he lived to tell the tale. 

Jefferson, of Detroit, spoke at the library Oct. 10 about his life as an African-American serviceman and his memoir, “Red Tail Captured, Red Tail Free: Memoirs of a Tuskegee Airman and POW.” 

After the talk, Jefferson answered questions from the audience and signed books. 

The Tuskegee Airmen were the first African-American military aviators in the U.S. armed forces. During World War II, which broke out in 1939, black Americans in many U.S. states were still subject to the Jim Crow laws and the military was still racially segregated. 

During his school days, Jefferson said, he was considered an outcast and he hid out in the chemistry lab, which is where he discovered his love of science. 

“I became a damn nerd,” Jefferson joked. 

In 1942, Jefferson graduated from Clark College in Atlanta with a degree in chemistry and biology. 

Even before Jefferson was accepted into the military, he was met with racist backlash. 

“As soon as I graduated, I knew I was going to be caught in the draft, so I came down to the federal building and took the exams and passed the son of a gun with 100 percent, but the lieutenant says, ‘Hell no. (N-word) can’t do this.’ The viciousness in this country during the war. … I had to come back to this country to be a teacher after the war to prove and show we were worth something.”

He was sworn into the U.S. Army Reserves as a volunteer, but he was not accepted for flight training. Jefferson took a job as an analytical chemist for three months before applying again to the U.S. Air Force. He was called up for flight training in 1943 at the Tuskegee Army Air Field. 

On Aug. 12, 1944, during Jefferson’s 19th mission over Toulon, France, his plane was shot down while attacking a radar installation. 

“All of the sudden, boom, a shell came up through the floor,” Jefferson said. “Fire came up out of the floor, so I had to bail out. During nine months of training, never one minute (was spent) on how to bail out. So what do you do? You do what you had to do under the circumstances.”

Once Jefferson bailed out of the plane, he parachuted to the ground through a sea of trees, where he was captured by Nazi ground troops. Two men were killed during the crash, Jefferson said. 

He was sent to a prisoner of war camp in Stalag Luft III in Poland. When he was taken into the camp, Jefferson said, the current prisoners met the new ones on the front lawn of the camp, where they were chosen by the current prisoners for their rooms. 

“All of the sudden, they get to me, and this great big tall hillbilly says, ‘Lord, crikey, I’ll take this boy,’ and I said to myself, ‘I better get ready to fight like hell.’ I get in the room and it’s beautiful. It’s fantastic. All the guys are friendly.” 

Jefferson said he believes he was picked for the room because the occupants were making false German passports in their room, and based on his appearance, they knew he was not a German spy. 

While being held prisoner, Jefferson said, he and his fellow captors missed the everyday comforts of life on the homefront. They dreamed of food, music and women. 

Soon after, Jefferson was moved to Stalag VII-A, outside of the Dachau concentration camp. 

“I saw Dachau. I saw four, five or six piles of dead bodies, where Germans were actually killing Jews,” Jefferson said. “Today, all of the sudden, I realized what Germany was doing is the same thing some of these characters today would do to blacks.”

On April 29, 1945, after eight months of captivity, Gen. George Patton’s U.S. Third Army freed Jefferson and his cohorts, and he returned to the U.S. aboard the RMS Queen Mary. 

Jefferson said he returned to the Tuskegee Army Air field in Alabama, where he was a teacher until it closed in 1946. 

There he met his wife, Adella T. MacDonald, who was working as a parachute technician. 

“I was caught,” Jefferson said of his wife. 

He retired from the Air Force in 1969 and began teaching elementary school science in the Detroit Public Schools district, retiring in 1979 as an assistant principal. 

In 2004, President George W. Bush awarded Jefferson a Purple Heart, and in 2007 he and other members of the Tuskegee Airmen were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal for their service. 

Kelly Rembert, an outreach librarian for the Southfield Public Library, said library officials were honored to have Jefferson speak. 

“Alexander Jefferson is a living legend,” Rembert said. “We don’t have too many more of those voices out in the world still today, and he is so well-spoken and knows so much about the history, and it’s important to hear that history firsthand and hear that passed down.”

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