By Colonel Ronald L. Albers, USAF, retired
It was February 25, 1945, at a remote airfield in eastern Bavaria near the small village of Pocking. Nazi warplanes were well hidden in areas cleared into the forest, then covered with netting and other camouflage. These were special aircraft at this particular airdrome that no other field possessed. The field also held some of Adolf Hitler’s personal aircraft, including two special six-engine, long range cargo craft designed to fly Der Fuhrer to South America should things look grim to him. Stationed at the base at the time was a 20-year-old Private Second Class Sigismund Harder. One of twenty guards at the installation, he was a member of the exclusive Guard Company #1, Hermann Goering Division of the German Luftwaffe. There were eight guards working this particular shift.
The weather was pleasant and calm, with clear skies all around. It was early to mid-afternoon when suddenly, literally out of the blue, the base was attacked by 30 P-51 Mustangs. They were swarming like bees, dropping bombs and firing machine guns; flying as close as 5 meters above young Sig’s head. It was truly havoc, chaos of the worst order. While his fellow guards manned the six or eight 4-barrel flak cannons, Sig found an M-42 machine gun and began to shoot at the attacking fighters, his very first actual combat. He still admits that he was too young and ignorant to be afraid or duck for cover, like many of his comrades did. He and his fellow guards downed perhaps five (no one today is quite certain the exact number) of the red-tailed P-51s in a fierce battle that lasted only maybe 15 minutes. But those moments would forever be etched in Private Harder’s brain. He vividly recalls how he was supposed to change barrels on the M-42 after 250 rounds. He also knows, however, that he fired 450 rounds before the hot barrel swap. In doing so, he suffered extensive second-degree burns on his left hand from that barrel exchange that left a painful reminder of the attack for weeks to follow. So inexperienced and naïve was young Private Harder that he wondered why the P-51 pilots would continue to flash their lights during the attack. Only years later did he learn that it was the flash of their four .50 caliber machine guns he was witnessing.
As soon as the sky cleared of those ominous P-51 Mustangs, Sig and his fellow survivors went to several of the crash sights to be certain the pilots were dead. They were. Much to the guards’ surprise, however, they found that these dead pilots were black. Having been born and raised in Germany, Sig had never seen a black man before. Yet, he marveled at the skill with which the pilots had flown those deadly fighter planes and the carnage the aviators had created. And he was amazed at the physiques and the strong, expressive faces of these Negro Americans. Although Hitler’s propaganda machine had tried to brainwash Nazi troops into thinking that all but Aryans were inferior, Sig knew better. He and his friends had often spoken in glowing terms about the feats of Jesse Owens, who had won four gold medals in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Private Harder was absolutely astounded by what had just happened; but most of all, he was amazed by these black pilots. To him, they were simply remarkable! The severe damage inflicted upon his airfield and destruction so many of the airplanes he was supposed to guard were testament to these incredible aviators’ competency in flight.
After the war Sig was held POW by the Allies for 2½ years and served as a camp medic for his comrades who were forced to do hard labor with no pay for the reconstruction of Luxembourg after the Battle of the Bulge. Following his discharge in the fall of 1947, and after six years of medical school and internship in Germany, Sig immigrated to the United States. During his five years of fellowship at the Cleveland Clinic, none of his American colleagues would believe his story of the gallant and skilled black pilots he had battled. He had imagined it all. There were no black pilots in the U.S. military during WW II. They just looked that way because they had been burned in the crash, he was told. Or he was stressed by the intensity of the bombardment. Perhaps it was a hallucination in “the fog of war.” He could not convince a soul of what he had witnessed that day in 1945. It was not until he talked about this to a friend in perhaps 1960 that he at last had found someone who knew of the legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen in WW II combat. Finally, in 2001 he read the recently released book, “The Black Knights,” which contained the story of the “Red Tails” and their accomplishments in the European theater during the war. Finally, his memory had been verified as accurate.
Following his fellowship at the Cleveland Clinic, Dr. Harder was certified as a medical doctor specializing in internal medicine; and he practiced his whole medical career in a small town on the Ohio River in southern Ohio from 1962 until he retired in 1997 at the age of 72.
In early July 2004, Dr. Harder received a newspaper article from a doctor friend in a suburb of Columbus about an upcoming ceremony to honor these black pilots who flew the famous red-tailed P-51 Mustangs 60 years ago in the war against Germany. Motts Military Museum in Groveport (another Columbus suburb) would hold a special tribute on Sunday, July 18, 2004, to commemorate the anniversary of when the “Tuskegee Experiment” began. On July 19, 1942, the first black pilots in the US Army Air Corps started aviation training. The feature had a picture of one of the “original” Tuskegee Airmen, former B-25 pilot Don Cummings. The story contained a fascinating interview with him. Nearly 60 years after Dr. Harder’s combat with the “Red Tails,” he could finally meet some of these black warriors in person. He phoned me, the event coordinator, and told his story, asking if he could attend the event. I told him that we would be honored to host him. He could even come to the pre-ceremony VIP function and meet these airmen in person before the actual tribute and presentations. During the ceremony we would introduce him from the podium as a special guest. I called Dr. Harder again the next day, because I was excited about the possibility of such a reunion after nearly six decades. When he told me that he learned a great deal from the newspaper article, I encouraged him to go to the local video store and rent the HBO movie, “The Tuskegee Airmen.” The movie portrays the pilots he would be meeting, and they have all told me that the movie is very factual and accurate in its portrayal of their training and accomplishments in WW II combat. Dr. Harder did so and learned much more about the legacy of these African American pilots. He was ready.
In mid-May, we mailed invitations to the homes of members of the original Tuskegee Airmen who still live in Ohio and surrounding states. 82-year-old Walter Palmer drove the nearly 200-mile trip from Indianapolis that Sunday, all alone. He was the first person to arrive and received a royal tour of the museum. Charles “C.I.” Williams (age 87) and his wife, Grace, made the trip from Dayton. These veterans were both “Red Tail” P-51 pilots who saw extensive combat in the European theater during WW II. Fortunately, both of them had paid their dues and were returned to the U.S. at the same time in November 1944; neither of them were strafing and bombing Dr. Harder while he was trying to shoot them down the following February. Nonetheless, to watch these gentlemen swap tales and experiences was fascinating! All the wounds have healed; there were no hard feelings at all. In fact, it was like these three had been friends all their lives. There was nothing but sincere smiles as they relived their youths from their unique perspectives on what they and the world had experienced sixty years ago in WW II.
C.I. Williams flew 89 combat missions in WW II before returning to the States. The normal number before being rotated home was 50. After the war, he stayed in the Army Air Corps as a pilot and commander until he retired in 1966 as a Lt Colonel. During the period between March 1946 and June of 1949, Lockbourne AFB in Columbus (3 miles from Motts Military Museum) was all black. The military was still segregated. Every single military individual on the base, from the commanding colonel to the lowest-ranking airman, was black. The base had a fighter squadron (P-47 aircraft) and a bombardment squadron (B-25 aircraft;) and at times C.I. commanded each squadron. In 1950 he flew P-51 fighters in Korea and later flew as a test pilot before a tour in Vietnam. His last tour of duty was in France flying both F-4 fighters and B-66 bombers as the Deputy Wing Commander. During his career, Lt Colonel Williams flew more than 8000 hours in more than 16 different aircraft. Following retirement from the Air Force, he had a second career with National Cash Register (NCR) in Dayton, from which he is also retired.
Of the reunion with Dr. Harder, Lt Colonel Williams said, “This was an amazing experience. About 30 years ago, I went hunting in Metz, Germany, with a former Nazi fighter pilot who had shot down one of our “Red Tails” in aerial combat. Dr. Harder is the first German ground troop that I have met face-to-face, and I found our discussions fascinating. Our memories are remarkable, even after 60 years. I was surprised at what a marvelous conversation we had; and I am sure that we will meet again soon to talk some more.”
1st Lt Walter Palmer returned to the U.S. after flying more P-51 Mustang missions in Europe than any other black pilot, an astounding 158. Black pilots had to stay longer than the normal 50 missions because there were no replacement pilots for them. The 100th Fighter Squadron was composed entirely of Tuskegee Airmen; and black pilots weren’t being trained fast enough. Walter didn’t mind staying longer; but when the time came to go home, he was anxious to see his new, first-born son who was born while Walter was abroad. Even then, it was a difficult decision for him, because he knew he was making history for America and especially black America with his superb combat record. He was one of the first black pilots to shoot down a German ME-109 fighter in aerial combat.
1st Lt Palmer returned to his family in New York for a brief stay before heading back to Tuskegee with an assignment as instructor pilot. Unfortunately, he and another pilot were in a serious car crash in Virginia while driving to Alabama. Walter’s resulting injury to his left eye permanently grounded him. Although he was offered other positions in the Air Corps, Walter chose to return to civilian life. He would have stayed with the military in a heartbeat if he could have remained on flying status. Flying was his passion, and he was damn good at it! He and his peers had not only survived “The Experiment,” but they excelled at it and proved that they were the best in theater during wartime. Walter has some regrets about leaving the service then, because he was never promoted higher than 1st Lt while his friends who remained for a career often made Lt Colonel or higher. Walter, however, was not one to look back. He worked some years at civil service and many years managing service stations. He still works full-time, assisting with his son’s computer business in Indianapolis.
In talking with Walter after the ceremony, he confided to me that Dr. Harder was the first German soldier he had ever met in person. Walter was intrigued by the meeting, and like the other two, it brought back a vast recollection of memories from those days so many years ago. “I am very appreciative of the opportunity to meet my former enemy; and I was very impressed with the gentleman. We talked openly and it was truly a learning experience for both of us,” said Walter. “I hope we have the chance to get together with Dr. Harder again some day and continue our discussions.”
Each of us has a list of things that we would like to experience before we leave this life. No doubt each of these three gentlemen checked off one of those particulars from his personal list that Sunday in July at Motts Military Museum, which was honored to assist them with those items on their checklists.
Another mission complete. ***** Or was it? *****
I wrote that story in 2004, based upon what I believed to be true at the time. Now I know part of it to be fiction. During my years as a member of the Ohio Chapter of Tuskegee Airmen, Inc. I attended many meetings, air shows, and other functions with C.I. Williams; and I admired the man immensely. At the Dayton Air Show one year I became suspicious of some of his tales and how all of his military records had been lost. So I wrote to the National Military Personnel Records Center in St. Louis and requested copies of C.I.’s military records using the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA.) I soon received a large manila envelope with his entire military history, and it was apparent that C.I had been lying about his record. He never deployed to Italy with the 332nd Fighter Group. Like about half of the other Tuskegee Airmen who got their wings, he was assigned to fly the B-25 bomber and was sent to California. He never saw combat in WW II. He never earned the Distinguished Flying Cross or the five Air Medals he claimed. And he certainly didn’t have 89 combat missions in a “Red Tail” P-51. Nor do I believe he saw combat in Korea or Vietnam. He was a maintenance officer then. I have lost all respect for C.I. One doesn’t lie about combat or overseas deployments. That’s why Congress passed the Stolen Valor Act. He has admitted to me that he lied all these years. He’s 94 now, and I wonder if he really feels any guilt or shame at all. I hope so.