Profile - The CAF Red Tail Project

My photo
South St. Paul, MN, United States
The mission of the Commemorative Air Force's (CAF) Red Tail Squadron is to preserve and share the history and legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen, America's first black military pilots. The Airmen served with distinction during WWII (and beyond). They overcame racism on the ground to fight fascism in the air, fighting for a country that turned a blind eye to policies and a large population that discriminated against these men and their families because of the color of their skin. The CAF Red Tail Squadron restored and flies a red-tailed P-51C Mustang such as the Airmen flew during WWII. The airplane appears at air shows in North America and at each stop her crew tells the story of the Airmen and how through persistence and courage they overcame huge obstacles in order to serve in the military. In 2011, the CAF Red Tail Squadron developed a traveling exhibit called "RISE ABOVE" to educate people - especially young people - about the Airmen and how they demonstrated the importance of setting goals and overcoming obstacles in order to succeed.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Ka-Boom! Impact Of 1944 Vesuvius Eruption On USAAF

     When I was interviewing last week’s blog subject – Harold “Red” Kempffer – he talked about the effects the March 18-23 1944 eruption of Italy’s big volcano, Mount Vesuvius, had on American bases and airplanes. Tuskegee Airman Joe Gomer had also mentioned seeing the bright red lava flow when flying over Vesuvius while he was in Italy.  He called it, “a beautiful sight.”
B-25s fly past Mt. Vesuvius in March, 1944
      Unfortunately, the March eruption 72 years ago was not notable just for its beauty when viewed from afar.  The contents of the hot ash cloud it belched out for almost a week did a number on about 80 parked USAAF B-25s from the 340th Bombardment Group at the Pompeii Airfield, not to mention the ash and cinder buildup on everything as it landed and cooled.  
The weight of the cinders and ash caused these B-25s to sit back on their tails. Their Plexiglass noses, etc. are covered to try and save them from melting due to the hot cinders falling from the volcano's ash cloud. Note the ash piled on the ground around the airplanes.
The tail "fabric" was destroyed by the hot ash and cinders from Vesuvius (in background).
      The 324th Service Group was brought in to help salvage the bombers. It was a tough job since the ash and cinders were still on the ground around the area and each step raised a cloud of dust. 
Where to start?  Remember, these guys had to work on 78 bombers that sustained damage from the eruption.

 Of course, the air base was not the only area that sustained damage.  Local towns also felt the effects of the volcano's ash and lava.
When the bulldozers were done on the air field, they went into the towns to clear the streets.
 Nothing could stop the lava flow as it oozed through fields and towns.  
Sorry this is so blurry but you can make out the steam rising from the lava as it moves along.  Hot stuff!

     These photos were taken by Eddie Little of the 489th Bombardment Squadron, the 340th Bombardment Group.  You can see more online at this link.  As awful as it was, to put this 1944 eruption into perspective it’s important to note that the volcano’s eruption in 79 A.D. completely buried the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum with 13-30 FEET of ash as the result of pyroclastic flows (hot gases that run down the slope of a volcano at high speed, killing everything in its path).  That event caught many people unaware and the flow’s hot gases killed them where they stood or slept. 
     After the two cities were buried by Vesuvius, they were basically forgotten until the mid-1700s when excavation started in earnest, based on earlier discoveries of some frescoes and mosaics.  A man named Giuseppi Fiorelli was supervising the excavation in the 1800s when he realized that the empty spaces they were finding were in fact where people and animals had died.  Their bodies had decayed away but the ash around them had hardened so that plaster could be injected and the victims' positions could be recreated.  This sounds gruesome but seeing these "statues" in person (as I have) really helps visitors picture the scope of the event, even after so long a time.

     More than 3 million people live close to Vesuvius these days so let's hope the mountain continues to behave itself.  While the warning systems are in place if the volcano starts to come alive, evacuating so many people will be a logistical nightmare.

Sun 'n Fun
The RISE ABOVE Traveling Exhibit and the Mustang are in Lakeland, Florida through Sunday at the Sun 'n Fun International Fly-In and Expo.  More than 3,000 people registered to see the free movie "Rise Above" in the Traveling Exhibit when it was in Daytona Beach and New Smyrna Beach last week, and we're hoping for even more visitors at Sun 'n Fun.  Stop by if you're in the area because those folks know how to throw an air show (Thunderbirds!).

The CAF Red Tail Squadron is a volunteer-driven 501c3 non-profit organization that operates under the auspices of the Commemorative Air Force. For more information, please visit

Friday, March 23, 2012

Harold "Red" Kempffer

[During Tuskegee Airman Joe Gomer’s presentation at the Galaxie Library in Apple Valley, Minnesota on February 25, Harold Kempffer raised his hand to ask Joe a question.  Mr. Kempffer had some items he wanted to give Joe as well and they spoke at length while Joe was signing autographs.  I was intrigued by the fact that Mr. Kempffer said that Tuskegee Airmen protected his bomber and asked if I could call and talk with him about that.  This blog is the result of that conversation.]

     Harold Kempffer was just 18 when he became a ball turret gunner on a B-24 named “50 Missions From Broadway.”  “We were all so young,” he said.  “Our tailgunner was 28, married with two kids.  I think he understood the risks more than we did, but we all just did our jobs.”  His crew started flying in Italy in August, 1944 and their B-24 was shot down on September 10 during a mission over Vienna, Austria.  He said, “We bailed out over Yugoslavia and that same night nine of our crew – me included - got flown out.  We just happened to be in the area where the partisans were helping to get Allied troops out.  It was pitch black with just two fire barrels at each end of the runway – which was really just a pasture - to guide the pilots.  I still don’t know how in the world they got the plane in and then back out again – some flying, that’s for sure.  The 10th member of our crew got separated from us and was in Yugoslavia for a month before they could get him out.”
     The crew got another airplane and resumed flying missions.  In all, Mr. Kempffer flew 50 missions and 33 combat sorties.  He recalls having the “red tails” in the mix of the fighters protecting them.  “We knew they were really good pilots and were glad to have them with us on the missions.  However, at that time, we really didn’t know what they had had to go through just to be allowed to fly and fight. I’m so glad their story is now being told and retold.”
     Mr. Kempffer also told about actually staying at the 332nd’s base at Ramitelli, Italy.  “Our base was basically snowed in because it was in higher elevations. 175 of us were at Ramitelli for five days because we couldn’t land at home.  One day, a group of us were just out walking around the base to see what it was like and to see the Mustangs.  Along comes B.O. Davis with a bunch of other officers, doing an inspection.  Boy, was he tall!  I didn’t talk to him but I remember seeing him to this day.
     “The men at the base were very nice to us.  Six of us enlisted men slept on tables pushed together in the non-com “club” because there were so many of us to have to put up.  They gave us one blanket each to stay warm but the food was good.  On the day we were told we could head for home, when we got to our airplanes where the radioman sat there was a note telling us how much they had enjoyed our stay and telling us we were welcome to come back anytime.  

Here is that note:


/s/  Eugene D. Weaver                                                               
Capt., Air Corps
Public Relations O.
Click here and scroll to the bottom of the page to read more about that incident.
Click here for a video featuring the 485th’s  2011 reunion in San Diego that many Airmen were also invited to attend
AND click here for a short photo essay featuring Mr. Kempffer (a.k.a “Red”).

     Our thanks to Harold Kempffer for attending Joe Gomer’s presentation last month and sharing his story with us this month. 
Air Show Update
     The RISE ABOVE Traveling Exhibit and the Mustang “Tuskegee Airmen” are featured at the New Smyrna Beach (FL) Balloon and Sky Fest this weekend.  Admission to the air show is only $2.00 (!) and of course, admission to the Traveling Exhibit is always free.  Tuskegee Airman Hiram Mann (see his interview in the most recent newsletter) will be presented with a Golden Baton by the Army’s elite parachute team, the Golden Knights on Sunday at about 1:30 p.m.   This air show has quite a lineup of great acts scheduled and they even have events at night so if you’re in the area, c’mon over! 

The CAF Red Tail Squadron is a volunteer-driven 501c3 non-profit organization that operates under the auspices of the Commemorative Air Force. For more information, please visit

Wednesday, March 21, 2012


     This is a just a quick entry for those who may be living in or in contact with people who live in the Daytona Beach area where the RISE ABOVE Traveling Exhibit is set up today and tomorrow.  By trusting a number of sources that appeared to be trustworthy, including Google Maps, the wrong address for Daisy Stocking Park has been shown in the newspapers and other media.  
     The correct address for the park is a block south of the corner of Green and Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune Blvd., just east of the Bethune-Cookman University Registrar's office at 589 Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune Blvd.  To search online, look for 550 3rd AVENUE, not "Street." We visited there yesterday after spending many, MANY minutes trying to find the park based on the inaccurate information.  There was a steady stream of visitors and three Tuskegee Airmen were there, signing autographs and chatting.  Parking is free and offers easy access.  They're showing the longer version of the movie which is very touching while being informative.  If you live in the area or know anyone who does, please stop by or invite those you know to do so.
     Hours today are from 9-6; tomorrow's hours are from 10-2.

Friday, March 16, 2012

If It's March, We Must Be In Florida

     The RISE ABOVE Traveling Exhibit is in Florida this month and into April.  Yesterday and today it’s at Simpson Park in Lakeland, Florida so school and youth groups and the public can stop by. Next week, it will be at Daisy Stocking Park (isn’t that the best name for a park ever?) in Daytona Beach Tuesday through Thursday to do educational outreach. Then it will move on to New Smyrna Beach for the Balloon and Sky Fest on the weekend; the Mustang will also be there.
     The Traveling Exhibit’s appearance at Daisy Stocking Park is going to be sponsored in part by the Mary McLeod Bethune Legacy Preservation Institute out of Daytona Beach.  That sponsorship opens up a history story all by itself:
     In 1904, Mary McLeod Bethune opened a small school for girls of color called the Literary and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls in Daytona.   
Mary McLeod Bethune
     The first year she had six students – one of whom was her young son, Albert who was, of course, not a girl but she felt he deserved the chance to learn, too.  By 1910, the school had 102 students and by 1920 there were 351 students.  In the beginning, the curriculum was focused on practical courses such as home economics, cooking, dressmaking and other skills that could help young black women earn a living. 
     Soon higher education courses were added. The school was renamed the Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute and in 1923 it merged with the Cookman Institute for Men out of Jacksonville, Florida.  The school was now a co-ed high school.  By 1931, the school had evolved into a junior college and changed its name once again, this time to Bethune-Cookman College.  In 1941, it became a four-year college and in 1942, Dr. Bethune retired as president of the institution. The final name change occurred in 2007 when it became Bethune-Cookman University or “BCU” for short.
     As she guided the school from its one-room beginning to a well-known school and then a respected college for young black people, Mrs. Bethune was constantly asking local institutions and individuals for financial support.  It wasn’t an easy thing to do, but she was completely focused on the difference that that money could make in the lives of young people, which gave her the passion to do the asking. 
     When we at the Squadron approach potential sponsors and donors or send out direct mail letters asking for money to help fund the RISE ABOVE Traveling Exhibit and the red-tailed Mustang named “Tuskegee Airmen,” it’s not our favorite thing to do, but we’re totally focused on how those funds can make a difference in someone’s life which helps steel our resolve to continue to ask.  Each young member of a school or youth group that sees the “Rise Above” movie in the Traveling Exhibit receives a free inspirational dog tag.   
     No one is ever charged admission to see the movie and anyone is welcome to hang out near the Mustang if it is parked close by. We want the “Rise Above” educational experience to be up close and personal for all of our guests, but that costs money that we have to find since our guests pay nothing.  So… if you’re looking for a way to share a portion of your 2011 tax refund with a really good volunteer-driven non-profit program, please consider making a tax-deductible donation to the CAF Red Tail Squadron. 

     Here's a link to a story that a local Daytona Beach newspaper published regarding the RISE ABOVE Traveling Exhibit and the Mustang coming to town.  It features a good picture of the Squadron's leader, Brad Lang, as well as one of Marvona Welsh, the woman who just about single-handedly weaves together the details of the Squadron's tour from city to city for 42 weeks of the year.   Marvona typically stays in the background but I'm of the opinion that every once in a while a hard-working team member should get a shout-out and this is hers (for March...). 

The CAF Red Tail Squadron is a volunteer-driven 501c3 non-profit organization that operates under the auspices of the Commemorative Air Force. For more information, please visit

Friday, March 9, 2012

Joe Gomer – Part II (plus "FiFi")

Tuskegee Airman Joe Gomer signs autographs after his appearance at the Galaxie Library
    Last week’s blog outlined Tuskegee Airman Joe Gomer’s early years and his deployment to Italy as a Tuskegee-trained pilot.  Joe had spoken at an event sponsored by the Galaxie Library in Apple Valley, MN on February 25.  Here are some more anecdotes that Joe shared that day regarding actually flying in combat and his homecoming.
  •  [Recall from last week’s blog that when the pilots got new aircraft in the field, flight training consisted of reading the manual and familiarizing oneself with the cockpit before flying it – there were no flight instructors to help out.] The first time Joe flew a P-51 in combat was on a five-hour mission.  He saw a buddy in trouble below him with two Germans closing in so Joe “pushed the stick forward to get down there to help.  I knew the thing could go more than 500 miles an hour but I wasn’t prepared for the immediate response and didn’t know how to slow the Mustang down.  I waved at the German as I flew by.  I did figure out how to pull out of the dive before I got into trouble but that beginning gave me a lot of respect for what that airplane could do.”
  • Joe was asked about rotating in and out after a certain number of flights.  He said, “We didn’t talk about rotation.  Because we only had a limited number of pilots training at Tuskegee, we had to fly more combat missions that our white counterparts who had replacements lined up to take over for them.  Twice, I was the only one of my tentmates to survive – all of the others had been lost. What didn’t bother me then gets to me now – how lucky I was.”
  • On one mission in his P-51 Mustang, Joe lost his canopy.  Because he forgot to put his goggles on at the beginning of the mission, he was grounded due to wind-burned eyes. 
  • One questioner from the audience asked Joe how Europeans treated them as black men.  He said, “The local Italians treated us the same way they treated the white military.  That continued until the end of the war.  In fact, the accepting nature of the Europeans led a good number of black soldiers to retire in Europe.  The white military still had a problem with us, though.  Like all Army Air Corps bases, ours was available as a landing field in case of an emergency.  One man who had landed there refused to share a tent with black men.  He went so far as to put his cot outside and tried to sleep out there.  It got so cold he had to come in. As far as I’m concerned, integration in the military started in the skies over Europe and in the POW camps.”
      Joe flew his first combat mission in January, 1944 and was released to return home on Christmas Day of that year.  He reported to the USS America to sail home.  The ship's officer that was helping to check the returning soldiers in took one look at Joe’s black face, saw the “N” next to his name and told him to go to the end of the line.  Joe was the last man to board the ship. Joe said, “Here I was, a combat-experienced pilot and an officer to boot and this little so-and-so treated me like that.  That episode hurt me worse than any shrapnel could have.  It took me years to be able to talk about it.  I did my duty as an American soldier but I didn’t necessarily hate the Germans.  However, if I had felt about the Germans the way I felt about how I was treated that day by that man, the war would have been over a lot sooner!”
     Joe returned home to Iowa Falls, Iowa and was a hero for “about two weeks.”  He put in for R&R and was given orders for Santa Monica, California.  Someone changed his orders and he was sent to New Orleans instead, back into the deep South where he had spent so many months training to be a pilot.  “I was in uniform but still had to be very careful,” Joe said.  “White people were shooting and lynching black men in uniform – it was crazy.”
     Joe stayed in the Air Force for 22 years.  Upon retiring from the military, he and his family lived in Duluth, Minnesota where he worked with the U.S. Forestry Service as a personnel officer.  He retired from there in 1985.  For more information about Joe’s life, I recommend reading the website that his daughter created for him.  Click here to go there. 

 The CAF’s fabulous B-29 Flying Fortress FiFi will be at the TICO AirShow in Titusville, FL on March 9-11.  This air show is put on by the Valiant Air Command Warbird Museum there, and the schedule looks awesome.
     Speaking of awesome, FiFi was here at the Daytona Beach Airport last weekend and I went to see her.  So did lots of other people.  Little kids all the way to WWII vets in their 80s and 90s stood uncomplainingly in line to get up close to her.   
The main attraction certainly was!
 I walked around and snapped some pictures of FiFi and the two P-51s that were also on the tarmac – The Brat III and E Pluribus Unum (top and bottom pictures respectively).  The Mustangs  fit in beautifully with FiFi and the WWII-vintage military vehicles also on display.
      The three airplanes were available for rides and to my delight, FiFi’s flight pattern took her right over the house as she flew passengers north along the Atlantic coast and then over the house again after she turned around to go back to the airport.  
FiFi was actually substantially lower than my photo indicates.
 I’m sure the neighbors thought I was one strange bird to go racing out to the street (best view) each time I heard the music of those four engines but I really didn’t care.  She’s a treat to see and hear, no matter where you are.

RISE ABOVE Traveling Exhibit
The RISE ABOVE Traveling Exhibit is at the Tulsa Air and Space Museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma through tomorrow.   Admission is free (as always) so if you know folks in the area, tell them to hustle on down to see the Traveling Exhibit's wonderful "Rise Above" movie.

The CAF Red Tail Squadron is a volunteer-driven 501c3 non-profit organization that operates under the auspices of the Commemorative Air Force. For more information, please visit


Friday, March 2, 2012

Tuskegee Airman Major Joe Gomer - Part 1

     I had the good fortune to attend a talk given by Tuskegee Airman Joe Gomer on February 25 in Apple Valley, Minnesota.  Although we both live in Minnesota and I had seen him numerous times at different Squadron functions, this was the first time I’d heard Joe speak for any length of time about his experiences as a pilot and an American who happened to have black skin.
     The event was held at the Galaxie Library and the place was packed -

     LaVone Kay, the CAF Red Tail Squadron’s Marketing Director, introduced Joe and then he began to speak.   

He has a very dry sense of humor, which made the crowd really pay attention because they didn’t want to miss a word – or a chance for a good laugh.   
     Joe spoke for about 30 minutes and then took questions - which provided the opportunity for more anecdotes -  for another 30.  Some highlights:

  • “We pilots are just the tip of the iceberg,” was the first thing Joe said.  He was reinforcing what LaVone had said in his introduction – that thousands of other dedicated black men and women who never took to the skies are also called Tuskegee Airmen.  “We were set up as an exact duplicate of the white AAC [Army Air Corps] which meant we had a lot of support crew people working with us. As far as my crew chief was concerned, the airplane I flew belonged to him – he just let me fly it!”
  • Joe was born and raised in Iowa where, growing up, he didn’t encountered the harsh segregation that he would face in the military.  Like all of the pilots I’ve ever met, he loved airplanes from the get-go, building models and looking at every airplane that flew overhead.  Hamilton Field (“which used to be ‘Hamilton Cow Pasture’”) in Ellsworth had a pilot training program where as a “green country boy,” Joe took his first flight in a Taylorcraft.  
  • 1940 Taylorcraft; photo by Alan Macon
This unique airplane was steered with a steering wheel rather than a stick.
      Joe ended up getting his pilot’s license before he got a driver’s license!
  • He reported to Tuskegee in September, 1944 and received his wings in May 1943.  “The training there was the same as white men experienced at their bases. I wasn’t concerned about comparing their experiences with ours.  I just knew we had to be good because we got no second chances – a lot of guys washed out for one reason or another,” Joe said.  Once in the field, he flew a progression of airplanes: P-40, P-39, P-47, and P-51C (2nd-hand).  The Tuskegee-trained pilots had been trained on some; for others – including the P-51 Mustang – they read the manuals, got familiar with the cockpits, and then flew them!

     Joe enjoyed flying every plane – even with their idiosyncrasies - and had stories about most of them.  His wartime experiences in Italy and his homecoming will be featured in next week’s blog.

     Meanwhile, if you’re in the Columbus, Mississippi area (or know someone who is) the RISE ABOVE Traveling Exhibit is set up there through tomorrow at the Hitching Lot Farmer’s Market.  Next week, it moves on to Tulsa, Oklahoma where, beginning March 6, it will be set up  at the TulsaAir and Space Museum and Planetarium. The Mustang will also be there.

The CAF Red Tail Squadron is a volunteer-driven 501c3 non-profit organization that operates under the auspices of the Commemorative Air Force. For more information, please visit