Nashville-Tuskegee Ties, Part II: The Tuskegee Airmen

by Kathy B. Lauder.

Our city’s most dramatic ties to Tuskegee developed shortly after the US entered World War II. In fact, it was Nashvillians who actually built the airbase where the famous Tuskegee Airmen trained. When brothers Moses and Calvin McKissack, well-known local architects, were selected to design and build the Tuskegee Airbase in 1942, they received what was then the largest federal contract ever won by an African American firm. McKissack & McKissack, now headquartered in New York City and Washington, D.C., remains the oldest minority-owned architectural engineering company in the United States.

Tuskegee Airmen 1945

The Tuskegee Airmen, whose exploits have become more familiar through a couple of recent commercial films, were actually not well known during the war, despite their extraordinary skill and courage. They were the first African American aviators to serve in the U.S. military. The “Tuskegee Airmen” title also encompasses the instructors, navigators, mechanics, and ground crew who trained and supported the pilots. According to a National Park Service article, “These men were the crème of the crop, many of whom already had bachelor’s and master’s degrees when they first began flight training in July of 1941.” And a considerable number of those remarkable men – trainers, support staff, and aviators – had ties to Middle Tennessee.

·         Curtiss P-40 Warhawk – produced 1939-1944

The following local men graduated from the pilot training program on the dates listed:

  • 2nd Lieutenant Howard L. Baugh (see story below): Single Engine Section, SE-42-J; 10 Nov 1942.
  • 2nd Lieutenant William J. Faulkner (see story below): Single Engine Section, SE-43-D; 29 Apr 1943.
  • 2nd Lieutenant Carroll N. Langston Jr. (see story below): Single Engine Section, SE-43-I; 1 Oct 1943.
  • 2nd Lieutenant Thomas G. Patton: Single Engine Section, SE-44-B; 8 Feb 1944.
  • 2nd Lieutenant Hannibal M. Cox (see story below): Single Engine Section, SE-44-D; 15 Apr 1944.
  • Flight Officer Robert A. Pillow: Single Engine Section, SE-44-E; 23 May 1944.
  • Flight Officer Robert J. Murdic: Single Engine Section, SE-44-F; 27 Jun 1944.
  • 2nd Lieutenant Rutherford H. Adkins (see story below): Single Engine Section, SE-44-I-1; 16 Oct 1944.
  • Flight Officer Rutledge H. Fleming: Twin Engine Section, TE-45-A; 11 Mar 1945.

Those in the Single-Engine Cadet Pilot Class were trained to fly the Bell P-39 Airacobra, Curtiss P-40 Warhawk, Republic P-47 Thunderbolt, North American P-51 Mustang, and similar combat fighter aircraft. Those in the Twin-Engine Cadet Pilot Class were trained to fly the North American B-25 Mitchell. There was also a third cadet program, the Liaison Pilot Cadet Class, training liaison and service pilots.

The sturdy construction of the Republic P-47N Thunderbolt enabled it to absorb severe battle damage and stay in the air.

After the war, Tennessee State University developed a new program called Aeronautical and Industrial Technology, which included an aviation education component and an Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC). Cecil Ryan, who was head of the department of aviation, and his colleague George Turman had been instructors in the Tuskegee Airmen’s cadet program. They would instruct generations of pilots as well as aircraft design and maintenance engineers. Many of Ryan’s students went on to become pilots on both military and commercial aircraft.

Simon Gaskill, a commercial pilot for Eastern Airlines during the 1970s and ‘80s, once wore his pilot’s uniform on a tour of the TSU campus. When he ran into Cecil Ryan, he introduced himself and was startled when Ryan began to cry. “I wanted to be an airline pilot, but wasn’t allowed,” Ryan explained. “Seeing you come in here with that uniform was just too much for me.”

Carroll Napier Langston Jr. and family (photo courtesy of Kristi Farrow)

Carroll Napier Langston Jr. (1917-1944), another of the renowned Tuskegee Airmen, was the great-grandson of John Mercer Langston and great-nephew of Nashvillians James C. and Nettie Langston Napier, widely respected community leaders. Raised in Nashville and Chicago, he graduated from Oberlin College and earned an LL.B. from the University of Michigan. In 1941 he entered law practice in Chicago but, shortly after the U.S. entered World War II, he signed up for flight school at the Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama. By 1943 he was part of the 301st Fighter Squadron (Red Tail Angels) and was subsequently assigned to the 332nd Fighter Group. In June 1944, during a reconnaissance mission off the Italian coast, Lt. Langston’s engine lost oil pressure and he had to bail out. Tragically, his parachute failed to open, and a witness saw him clinging to the side of the plane as it went down. His body washed up on the beach several days later and was brought later to Greenwood Cemetery, where he now rests amongst his family. 

William J. Faulkner Jr.

Captain William J. “Billie” Faulkner Jr. (1918-1944), a graduate of Pearl High School and Morehouse College, was the son of the Rev. and Mrs. William J. Faulkner Sr. His father was dean of the Fisk University Chapel. William Jr. enlisted August 17, 1942, graduating from the Tuskegee pilot program as a 2nd Lieutenant on April 29, 1943. An airman with the 301st Fighter Squadron, U.S. Army Air Corps, he is believed to be the first African American from Nashville to be commissioned in the Army Air Forces. In September 1944 he was awarded the first oak leaf cluster to the Air Medal for “meritorious achievement in aerial flight while participating in sustained operational activities against the enemy.” Barely two months later, November 7, 1944, with 56 combat missions to his credit, he was reported missing in action over Austria. Two days before Christmas his grieving parents finally received word that he had been killed on the day he was reported missing in November, “possibly because of mechanical failure of his P-51C.” (Other sources say he was shot down.) He was awarded the Air Medal with four oak leaf clusters. Captain Faulkner is buried in France in the Lorraine American Cemetery and Memorial, which contains the largest number of World War II American graves (10,489) in all of Europe.

Hannibal M. Cox

Colonel Hannibal M. “Killer” Cox (1923-1988) graduated from flight training at Tuskegee in April 1944 and went on to serve as a combat pilot in three wars – World War II (where he flew 64 combat missions), the Korean War (more than 100 combat missions), and Vietnam. He earned a bachelor’s degree in aeronautics from Tennessee State University (TSU), a master’s in industrial relations and personnel management from the University of Chicago, and a Ph.D. in psychology from Western Colorado University. After Vietnam one of his command duties was to serve as a professor of aerospace science at TSU, his alma mater. When he retired from the U.S. Air Force in the 1960s (with an Air Medal, five oak leaf clusters, and the Distinguished Flying Cross), he became director of ground equipment for Eastern Air Lines. Later appointed director of Eastern’s equal opportunity and community relations programs, he was instrumental in breaking down racial bias in the airline industry.

Howard Lee Baugh

Colonel Howard Lee Baugh (1920-2008) was born in Virginia; attended public schools in Virginia and Brooklyn, New York; graduated from Virginia State University; and married his college sweetheart. In March 1942 he entered the U.S. Army Air Corps and completed his pilot training at Tuskegee, Alabama, that November. Assigned to the 99th Fighter Squadron in Sicily, he flew 135 combat missions.  As a pilot in the USAF, he registered 6,000 pilot hours, with a career record of 250 combat hours. Following his World War II service, Colonel Baugh, who had been trained by Cecil Ryan at the Tuskegee Institute, served for a period of time as Professor of Air Science at Tennessee State University. He retired from the United States Air Force as a Lieutenant Colonel in 1967. For his distinguished career as an aviator, Colonel Baugh was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal with three oak leaf clusters, the Air Force Commendation Medal, and the Air Force Distinguished Unit Citation, and other medals. In 2004 he was awarded the French Legion of Honor.

Rutherford H. Adkins, 1944

Dr. Rutherford H. “Lubby” Adkins (1924-1998), born in Alexandria, Virginia, developed an interest in physics while studying at Virginia Union University. He transferred to Temple University but was soon drafted into the U.S. Army. He took flight training for single-engine fighter planes at the Tuskegee Flight School, graduating as a 2nd Lieutenant in 1944. A member of the 100th Fighter Squadron of the 332nd Fighter Group – the Tuskegee Airmen – he flew 14 combat missions over Europe. Returning home, he earned a B.S. (Virginia State, 1947), an M.S. (Howard University, 1949), and a Ph.D., the first ever granted to an African American by The Catholic University in Washington, D.C. (1955). At various times he served on the faculties of Virginia State University, Tennessee State University, the U.S. Naval Academy, Fisk University, Morehouse College, and the Georgia Institute of Technology. He was president of Knoxville College from 1976 to 1981, returning to Fisk in 1993 to become division chair of Natural Sciences & Mathematics, interim president in 1996, and president in 1997, only a year before his death.

North American P-51 Mustang

Some of this material has been adapted from the Greenwood Project.

Learn more about the relationship between these two Southern cities in “Nashville-Tuskegee Connections, Part I.

Nashville-Tuskegee Ties, Part I: Medicine, Music, & Architecture

by Kathy B. Lauder.

Nashvillians have built some important connections with Tuskegee, Alabama, over the years, primarily in the fields of education, medicine, music, and the military.

Dr. Halley Tanner Dillon Johnson (1864-1901)

Booker T. Washington hired Dr. Halley Tanner Dillon (1864-1901) to be resident physician at Tuskegee Institute in 1891. After passing the state’s challenging medical exam, Dillon became the first woman, black or white, to practice medicine in Alabama. At Tuskegee she taught several classes, supervised the infirmary, established a dispensary where she mixed her own medicines, and founded a nursing school. She returned to Nashville after marrying Pastor John Quincy Johnson in 1894. When she died in childbirth at age 36, her death certificate listed her profession as “housekeeper.”

Dr. John Henry Hale (1878-1944)

Dr. John Henry Hale (1878-1944), a member of the Meharry faculty for nearly 40 years, was chairman of the Department of Surgery (performing more than 30,000 operations) as well as associate director of the Tumor Clinic, while also serving as head surgeon at Nashville’s Millie E. Hale Hospital. President (1935) of the National Medical Association, he was a longtime patron of the Tuskegee Institute and oversaw the Surgical Clinics there.

Dr. John C. Ashhurst (1908-1995)

Dr. John Christopher Ashhurst (1908-1995), a native of British Guyana, served as chief pathologist at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Tuskegee, Alabama, before moving to Nashville in the mid-1960s to become head of surgical pathology at Meharry Medical College, while at the same time serving as the county medical examiner.

Thomas W. Talley (1870-1952)

Thomas W. Talley (1870-1952), acknowledged as Tennessee’s first African American folklorist, began collecting folk songs about 1900 and published a collection, Negro Folk Rhymes, in 1922, a decade before Lomax and Niles. A Fisk graduate who later taught chemistry and choral music at his alma mater, Talley had previously taught at Tuskegee Institute (1900-1903).

Marcus H. Gunter (1918-2003) earned a degree in music at Tuskegee Institute. During college he performed with the Tuskegee Melody Barons, a popular dance band, and he later studied at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. During World War II, Gunter, a warrant officer, was director of the 41st Engineers Band in France. In 1947 he began a 39-year teaching career as music teacher and band director at Pearl High School. After retiring from his teaching career, he became owner and director of a Nashville funeral home.

Daughter of a Philadelphia longshoreman, Dorothy Coley Edmond (1927-2006) attended Fisk University, then earning a nursing degree from Meharry Medical College, a master’s degree from Columbia University, and an Ed.D. from Peabody College. She worked as a nursing instructor at Tuskegee Institute before marrying and returning to Nashville, where she established the School of Nursing at Tennessee State University. She is believed to be the first African American registered nurse ever to become a member of the Tennessee Nurses Association.

Moses McKissack III (1870-1952)

Born in Pulaski, Tennessee, Moses McKissack III (1879-1952) was the grandson of a slave who passed on his skills as a “master builder” to his descendants. As a teenager, Moses was hired by a local contractor to create designs and drawings for a Pulaski construction business. From 1895-1905 the youngster oversaw building crews in Tennessee and Alabama before moving to Nashville, where he and his brother Calvin opened their own firm –Among their first projects were Fisk University’s Carnegie Library and the residence of Vanderbilt’s dean of architecture and engineering. Later projects included Pearl High School and the TSU Memorial Library, as well as many other schools, homes, churches, and office buildings throughout the South. Now based in New York City and Washington, D.C., McKissack & McKissack remains the oldest minority-owned architectural engineering company in the U.S.

Calvin McKissack (1890-1968)

Like his older brother Moses, Fisk University graduate Calvin McKissack (1890-1968) earned his architecture degree through a correspondence course and from lessons passed down by their grandfather. Not long after they opened their Nashville firm (1905), Calvin started a satellite company in Dallas. However, he eventually returned to Nashville to teach industrial drawing at Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial State Normal School (now Tennessee State University), which had opened in June 1912. Six years later he was hired to be director of Pearl High School’s industrial arts department, and he presently became executive secretary of the Tennessee State Association of Teachers in Colored Schools. When the state enacted a law requiring architects to be registered (1921), the McKissacks were nearly banned from taking the licensing examination because of their race. State administrators eventually conceded, evidently assuming neither brother would be able to pass, but when the authorities continued to dither after both men sailed through the exam, the national media took up the story . . . whereupon the McKissack brothers promptly received their licenses, and their company officially became Tennessee’s first professional African American architectural firm. Their $5.7 million contract (1942) to design and build the 99th Pursuit Squadron Air Base in Tuskegee, Alabama, was the largest federal contract ever granted to an African American firm up to that time. The base was the home of the Tuskegee Airmen, African American fighter pilots who would gain the admiration of the entire world for their skill and courage in combat. Moses McKissack, whom President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed to the White House Conference on Housing Problems, continued to head the firm until his death in 1952. His brother Calvin succeeded him, handing the reins to Moses’s son, William DeBerry McKissack, in 1968.

Tuskegee Army Airfield, 1943

Learn more about the Tuskegee Airmen in “Nashville-Tuskegee Connections, Part II.”

Some of this material has been adapted from the Greenwood Project.