Floyd Collins is a Tuskegee Airman.
But unlike the 450 Tuskegee Airmen who served overseas as the first black pilots in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II, the 87-year-old Collins did not see combat by the time he was commissioned in 1946.
“The war was over with,” Collins said. “If they told me to go overseas, would I have gone? Yes. But did I want to go? No. I’ll be honest with you.”
For several decades, the Tuskegee Airmen were the unsung heroes of World War II. In 2007, the group received the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest U.S. civilian honor. In early 2012, “Red Tails,” a fictionalized account the Tuskegee Airmen in WWII, brought the group’s story to moviegoers. And when the Smithsonian’s African-American History Museum opens in 2015, a WWII biplane the Tuskegee Airmen used to train will be among the featured artifacts.
Stories like Collins’ shine a spotlight on a little-known side of this elite group, though it’s not known how many of the Tuskegee Airmen did not see combat.
Before 1940, African-Americans were prohibited from flying military planes, as they were believed to lack the capacity to serve in combat duty. When the government permitted African-Americans to become fighter pilots, it was a momentous occasion for blacks around the country.
Larry Sargent, curator of the Tuskegee Airmen National Museum and former Army combat medic, said it did not matter whether Tuskegee Airmen served and fought overseas. “They were considered part of the brotherhood because they couldn’t depend on anyone else,” he said. “Whites were rooting against them trying to make them not-up-to-par fighters. Whites could get by with 75 percent, but Tuskegee Airmen had to give 125 percent.”
“They were pioneers of desegregation,” Sargent said.
Collins grew up on Chicago’s South Side and was drafted in 1943 soon after graduating from high school. For Collins, the idea of flying a plane never crossed his mind, but it was his opportunity to prove that he was as capable as his white counterparts in the military. He began military training in Sioux Falls, S.D., before being sent to Tuskegee, Ala., for pilot training. “At that time, many people in the country said blacks can’t fly (an airplane). They don’t have the intelligence to fly a plane,” Collins said.
Collins was reminded that although he was willing to sacrifice himself for the U.S., the country was not willing to accept him or his fellow African-American pilots. The Tuskegee Airmen even faced discrimination from white pilots, Collins said.
By the time he returned home, Collins had achieved the rank of second lieutenant and was a hero in his community. But Collins encountered a jolting racial experience from the South’s Jim Crow laws during his train ride from Alabama to Chicago.
“They fought two battles: racism in the Air Corps and in Germany — and they came home to racism,” Sargent said.
Collins now lives in an assisted-living residence in Silver Spring, Md., with another Tuskegee Airman. Collins and 89-year-old Wylie Selden, a lieutenant in the 99th Fighter Squadron who saw combat in Germany, reminisce about their time as Tuskegee Airmen. Although Selden graduated from Tuskegee training two years ahead of Collins, they went through very similar experiences and consider each other brothers — Tuskegee brothers.