Tuskegee Airman Reminisces About His Experiences In World War II

Lt. Charles Nolley - 2

Edison resident Lt. Charles Nolley, a member of the famed Tuskegee Airmen, spoke Feb. 29 at the Senior/Community Center.

Charles Nolley speaks with pride when he talks about the experiences of he and his fellow Red Tail pilots during World War II.

Nolley, 98, of Edison, was a member of the elite Army Air Corps fighting force known as the Tuskegee Airmen, four squadrons of fighter pilots comprised entirely of African Americans. Drafted in 1943, Nolley was a lieutenant when he was discharged from the service in 1946.

Nolley appeared at the Senior/Community Center Feb. 29 as the guest of the Parkside Senior Citizen Club and the township recreation department as part of the Black History Month observation. He spoke and answered questions for about an hour.

Nolley interspersed his comments with jokes – he was a song and dance and comedy man before and after the war – and some inspirational messages as well.

Drafted in 1943, Nolley took flight training as part of the Tuskegee experiment. As he tells it, it was an experiment designed to fail.

There was some Army brass who believed that blacks were not smart enough to learn how to fly planes, and that they were too docile to fight, Nolley said. The Tuskegee airmen were trained on the P-51 Mustang which, at the time, was the fastest plane in the air.

“We worked hard at learning how to fly those planes,” he said.

The Tuskegee Airman trained for two years because of a reluctance to put them in battle. It took intervention by the then-First lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, to get them in the air.

“We were the best trained pilots in the Army,” he said.

Nolley said his squadron’s mission was to escort and protect bombers while the lunkier aircraft were conducting raids. It was a source of pride for he and his comrades that they never lost a bomber to an enemy aircraft, he said.

One of their secrets was to paint the tails of their aircraft red so they could tell friendlies from enemies, Nolley said. That’s how the airmen became known as “Red Tails.”

Nolley recalled a mission where he was warned that he had two German Messerschmit fighter planes on his tail. He said he looked left and right and up and down, but could not see them.

So he flew his plane straight up until he thought he would stall and did a loop-de-loop.

“I ended up right behind” the Germans,” Nolley said, laughing. “My friends thought I did that on purpose.”

“They thought I was better than I was,” he continued. “I didn’t say anything.”

After a while, Nolley said, bomber pilots started requesting the Red Tails as their escorts.

“The bomber pilots became the only caucasian friends we had in those days,” he said.

“The newspapers said the bombers won the war, which I guess was true,” Nolley said. “But they never would have gotten there if it wasn’t for us.”

Nolley said that after the war, he often wondered why the races could not get along like the Red Tails and bomber pilots did.

“We were fighting with white guys and we won the war,” Nolley said.

After his discharge, Nolley briefly returned to show business, performing in four Broadway productions, he said. He later received a B.A. from Virginia State University, a Master’s in dramatic arts from Columbia and went on to teach at Barringer Prep in Newark, where he also became a vice principal.

One thing that his war experience taught him, Nolley said, is that color does not have to be a barrier to success.

“People of color can do anything anybody else can do, with the proper training and education,” he said. “And some of us can even do it better.”

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