By Jen Maldonado
History came to life Thursday night when a few of the Tuskegee Airmen visited Rider and spent two hours sharing their inspiring stories about their time in the U.S. Air Force during World War II.
The night began with an introduction from Dean of Students Anthony Campbell that established the theme for the night.
“You can’t do what you do today if it wasn’t for the people from yesterday,” Campbell said.
The microphone then passed to Charlie Geter, a radio broadcaster for 60 years and the first African American to graduate from Rider with a Communication degree. Geter served as master of ceremonies for the night as he introduced each of the airmen. Lt. Colonel Thomas A. Mayfield, Sgt. Robert Baker, Dr. Leslie Hayling, an aviation cadet, and Barbara O’Neal, the sister of the late Elwood “Woody” Driver, one of the very first Tuskegee fighter pilots were present at the event.
O’Neal spoke about her brother’s fearlessness.
“My big brother was a hero and one of the most courageous men I knew,” O’Neal said. “All of the positive attention he’s received over the years is just unbelievable. He overcame many obstacles and I’m just so proud of the amazing things he did.”
Many audience members asked the airmen several questions about their opinions on the films that have been made about their experiences, such as The Tuskegee Airmen, released in 1995 and the most recent Red Tails.
“Red Tails is a good movie,”Mayfield said. “It’s very entertaining and shows how we proved that we could do something and that we could fly, but the film didn’t show too much of how the Tuskegee Airmen really started.”
Baker agreed and added that, “the film left out some important parts, like when Eleanor Roosevelt asked to fly with a black pilot and refused to go up in the plane with a white pilot.”
Hayling said that the film did accurately portray how no one wanted black pilots at first but later on, these were the men that were being asked to fly on every mission.
O’Neal said her brother would have appreciated the movies’ intentions.
“I know Woody would’ve been so excited about all of the movies,” O’Neal said. “It would be something he would’ve enjoyed and felt honored about.”
Each of the airmen had different stories of how they became Tuskegee Airmen. Baker was drafted into the Air Force and didn’t get to accomplish his boyhood dream of competing in the Olympics in track and field, while Mayfield and Hayling both willingly enlisted.
Hayling said he always loved airplanes and his father even took him to the airport every Sunday to watch the planes.
“When I was 17 years old, I knew I wanted to volunteer and get into the Air Force,” he said. “A friend of my parents worked in the recruitment office so when I turned 18, she sent me my card, I took the exam, I passed, and made it to Tuskegee.”
Hayling discussed the memories he has of his time in Tuskegee and how the upperclassmen put him and the other new cadets through some hazing.
“If we were going to becomes pilots, we had to get used to it,” Hayling said. “They made us recite silly ‘dodo poems’ as they were called and we played a card game in which we had to do the number of push-ups that was on the card, like a four of diamonds, meant four push-ups for each cadet.”
Even though the men faced a great deal of adversity and it wasn’t an easy experience, being in the Air Force is something that they all said has impacted their lives forever.
“It was some of the best times of my life,” Hayling said. “Besides the difficult things we had to deal with, we proved we could fly. And all those push-ups I had to do kept me in shape, but don’t ask me to do that today. I’m lucky that I can even walk at my age.”