Residents get a Tuskegee history lesson

Mon, 04/23/2007 - 9:01am
By: Ben Nelms

Residents get a Tuskegee history lesson

He is a man who has seen much and forgets little. Lt. Col. Charles Dryden (USAF-retired) shared his experiences as one of the famed World War II Tuskegee Airmen with a group of more than 40 people April 15 at a meeting of the Old Campbell Historical Society in Fairburn.

Gracious, sharp-witted and 86 years young, the Atlanta resident’s wheelchair could hardly contain his energy. Far more than a decorated World War II pilot, Dryden took the audience on a flight through the pages of aviation history, detailing the pioneers in black aviation, offering personal testimony to many of his fellow Tuskegee Airmen and providing his thoughts on what he saw in America and what that view meant to him.

One of a total of 992 Tuskegee Airmen, Dryden was born in 1920 in New York City. He earned a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science from Hofstra University, a Master’s in Public Law and Government from Columbia University and was awarded honorary doctorates from two universities in 1996.

But it was his selection for aviation cadet training at Tuskegee Army Flying School in August 1941 that changed his life. Becoming part of the 99th Pursuit Squadron, later named the 332 Fighter Group, that served in North Africa, Sicily and Italy during World War II, Dryden made his mark on aviation history when he was commissioned on April 29, 1942. His graduation class was the second group of black pilots in the history of the U.S. Army Air Corps to graduate aviation school.

On June 9, 1943, then Lt. Charles Dryden named his P-40 aircraft “A-Train” and led a flight of six pilots to engage enemy fighters in aerial combat over Pantelleria, Sicily, marking the first time in aviation history that black American pilots of the U.S. Array Air Corps engaged aircraft in combat.

Dryden retired in 1962 after 21 years of service. During that time he flew in other combat missions in Korea and had duty assignments in Germany, Japan and across the United States, amassing a total of 4,000 flying hours.

Dryden published his autobiography, “A-Train: Memoirs of a Tuskegee Airman,” in 1997. He has received numerous other honors, including an induction into the Georgia Aviation Hall of Fame in 1997. And in March, Col. Dryden received one of the nation’s highest honors, the Congressional Gold Medal.

During his comments in Fairburn, Dryden acknowledged that he had an initial deep-seated fear at the beginning of his career. Inside himself, he questioned if he could fly combat missions.

“I was never an aggressive person, I wondered when facing the enemy if I would engage or run away,” Dryden explained. “But I came to realize that that fear disappeared. I was a tiger, not a pussycat.”

Much to the point, Dryden referenced a low time in his career. It came after he and other Tuskegee Airmen had been transferred to a base in South Carolina. As the train pulled up, Dryden saw armed MPs and, later, German prisoners of war working at their assigned duties. But it was what he saw during the off-work times that brought tears to his heart. At the movie theater, the German POWs were allowed to sit anywhere they wanted. The black pilots were treated differently.

“The German POWs on the base could do things we could not do. They could sit anywhere in the theater. The black airmen could not,” Dryden explained emotionally. “To this day I have to fight for composure to keep back tears of rage.”

Dryden also spoke of the high point of his career. That point, he said, was the day so many years ago when he graduated and earned his wings.

“The day they pinned wings on me, my heart was beating, beating, beating and I thought I’d pass out,” Dryden said smiling.

Dryden ended his talk by reciting the now-famous pilot’s creed, “High Flight,” written by John Gillespie Magee. It was easy to see that, for Dryden, Magee’s words had become sewn into the fabric of his being. A pilot with the Royal Canadian Air Force, Magee was killed in the opening days of World War II during a training flight in England. On Magee’s gravestone are the beginning and ending phrases of the sonnet so perfectly quoted with near-tearful emotion by Dryden on that Sunday afternoon in Fairburn. There was no doubt on the minds of any in the room that the poem truly did hold great significance for Dryden, a man who gave much to his country, and still gives today. Those words were: “Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth... put out my hand and touched the face of God.”

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