Tuskegee Airman shares his personal experiences

By: Maria Allard | Warren Weekly | Published March 22, 2013


WARREN — “The attitude was blacks would not fly for the U.S.,” Tuskegee Airman Lt. Col. Washington Ross said. “Senator (Harry) Truman, Eleanor Roosevelt, the black press The Amsterdam News put pressure on Congress to let blacks take aviation training.”

On March 14, the World War II fighter pilot shared his story with about 40 audience members during a presentation at the Macomb Community College South Campus library.

Ross, a spry 94-year-old, participated as one of the first U.S. African American military airmen during WWII, known as the Tuskegee Airmen. The veteran talked about the airfield built in Tuskegee, Ala., that cost $2.5 million to make “just to train blacks.”

“Congress felt they won’t be able to do it,” said Ross, sporting a red baseball cap that read “Detroit Tuskegee Airman.” “They were in for a rude awakening.

“Tuskegee (was) run by all blacks. Flight training was in three parts,” Ross said. “In my class there were 40-some students. About half would take flight training and the other half would take ground school. Athletes usually made good pilots because they have good coordination.

“Your landing gear was close together,” Ross remembered. “You had two wings. Most of the students washed out in primary. If you passed primary, all the instructors were white. By the time you passed the exam from training, you were in the Army. You transition from a training plane to a combat plane.”

Not only did Ross and his crew have to learn how to fly, they also needed to learn how to use military weapons. 

“Each cadet had bullets that were painted in different colors,” Ross said. “That’s how you tell if you hit the target.”

Ross’ unit was the 332nd Fighter Group based out of Tuskegee. It was also known as the Red Tails, somewhat named for their plane’s distinctive markings. Their first overseas mission was outside Naples, Italy.

“Remember, we were escorting the bombers,” said Ross, who grew up in Ashland, Ky. “My whole active duty was in the Army Air Corps. War is hell. Believe it.”

Ross’ unit eventually relocated to what he said was the east part of Italy in a town called Ramitelli.

“Everybody starts checking their instruments when you go over the Alps,” Ross said, who flew a total of 63 missions. “The missions were rotated. You maybe would go twice a week. A typical mission lasted five hours.”

Ross — who earned several military medals, including the Congressional Gold Award — said many Airmen flocked to Rome during down time.

“That’s where the happenings were,” said Ross, who several times made the audience laugh by telling quick jokes.

He also said there was talk of capturing Rome.

“It would have been tragic to attack Rome and tear it up,” he said. “They did not attack Rome. That was good, in my estimation.”

During the presentation, Ross showed a group of model airplanes that showcased the planes he flew during the service. He talked about the mechanisms of each one.

“The P-40 was hard to land. The P-39 had disc brakes. You just had to tap them,” Ross said. “The P-51 airplane … carried two auxiliary tanks. It’s kind of a graceful airplane.”

He said some of the Tuskegee Airmen tried to fly commercial after the war. Ross said he has not flown a plane since exiting the military. He received an honorable discharge in 1947 but remained in the Reserves until retirement in 1981.

Ross took questions from the audience. One attendant wanted to know how the Tuskegee Airmen were treated in Italy.

“They treated us all right,” he said.

Ross received a standing ovation at the presentation’s end. His story impressed Warren resident Mary Clark.

“I’m really overwhelmed to meet somebody who was actually there,” Clark, 72, said. “If it wasn’t for people like him, people like me wouldn’t be allowed to live in the United States and have really good success.”

Clark was born in England during “The Blitz” of WWII. When she learned Ross would speak about his experiences, she “had to come and see this gentleman.”

The African-American History and Cultural Committee and the Macomb Multicultural International Initiatives sponsored Ross’ visit. Kenneth Shelton, AAHCC academic advisor chair, said it was a privilege to welcome him.

Ross was married to his wife, Willie Pearl White, for 60 years. The couple has four children and three grandchildren. Post-war, Ross worked for Detroit Public Schools and the U.S. Postal Service.