A Flying Man of Tuskegee
Sometimes it is hard to believe and at the same time so easy to realize that out of the one thousand or so African American men, collectively known as "The Tuskegee Airmen," at least three of those legendary flying men have called Laurens County home. Laurens County is known far and wide across the state for the inordinate amount of her citizens who have meritoriously contributed to the service of our state and our nation. The stories of our three Tuskegee Airmen are a prime example.
You may already know the story of Major Herndon "Don" Cummings. Major Cummings, a native of northwestern Laurens County, was assigned to duty as a bomber pilot to train for the anticipated bombing campaign during the thought to be necessary invasion of Japan in the autumn of 1945. Cummings was among the one hundred or so African American pilots who were arrested for trying to integrate a "white" officers club at Freeman Field, Indiana just days before the death of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Freed by new president, Harry Truman, Cummings went on to a successful flying career after the war. His last moment in the limelight came as he sat with other Tuskegee Airmen on the platform during the inauguration of President Barack Obama in 2009. Cummings died during a hospital stay in the winter of 2010-11.
You probably don't know the story of Col. John Whitehead, a young West Virginia born man, who was raised in Dublin, Georgia in his early youth and who became known as "Mr. Death." Whitehead is often credited with being the first African-American test pilot in the United States Air Force. His story will come later.
But, now, I want to tell you the story of Marion Rodgers. Surprisingly there is little written material available online, mainly a biography prepared by Commemorative Air Force in its Red Tail project, from which he is quoted herein.
"I was born in Detroit on September 23, 1921 and raised to about age eight in Dublin, Georgia, by my mother. We moved to Roselle, NY in 1929 to live with cousins along with my older Brother, Raymond, who raised me from then until after high school. The school system was great. I worked a short while and continued to run track with a team that frequented meets at Madison Square Garden, in Manhattan," Rodgers told an interviewer.
"Some running a huge auto repair garage nearby restored a damaged biplane. I was there many days to observe and finally, after weeks, it flew. I was hooked. The big problem was minorities had no place in aviation," spoke Rodgers of his interest in aviation.
Marion was hooked. He would make his way to airports, where he would stake out a prime stop to watch planes as they landed and took off.
When Marion Rodgers learned to his surprise that the United States Army Air Force would be accepting applications for flight school from African Americans, he took the test. Not surprisingly, the near genius easily passed all of this entrance tests.
Not immediately accepted into flight school at Tuskegee, Alabama, Rodgers was first assigned to an anti-aircraft artillery unit and the served a short term as a radio operator.
"Then I got called, not to Tuskegee, but to Keesler Field, along with 200 other backlogged aviation Cadet-Selectees for basic training again. Finally we went to Tuskegee, the institute, as students. Finally, in May 1943, I'm sent to Pre-Flight Training at Tuskegee Army Air Field and what an experience that was," Rodgers exclaimed!
But all was not goodness and light. Flight training was both physically and mentally rigorous.
"We went to ground school every day for military customs, leadership, discipline, navigation, aeronautics, radio code, fuel management, weather, aircraft recognition, mathematics, physical fitness, etc.," remembered Rodgers.
Rodgers trained at Moten Field before returning to Tuskegee where he flew the Vultee BT-131 for the requisite 80 flight hours. Promoted to the much more powerful AT-6, Marion earned his 2nd Lieutenant wings.
"I made it, somehow, and was very proud. It was a segregated program. All the instructors in Basic and Advanced Training were white, but most were fair and conscientious. A few should have been somewhere else," recalled Rodgers of his early days in flight school.
After flying the P-40, P-39 and P-47, Marion was assigned to the 99th Fighter Squadron, the famous unit eternally known as the "Red Tails."
"In 69 combat missions I flew 370 hours. We flew escort for B-17s and B-24s with occasional strafing and reconnaissance missions. We never lost a bomber to enemy aircraft and I don't know how we herded hundreds of them into well-protected targets in Munich, Vienna, Budapest, Linz, Salsburg, Stuttgart, Regensburg and Berlin," recounted the former fighter pilot.
His most exciting missions were strafing missions in Southern France, Rumania, Hungary, and Germany, destroying aircraft, locomotives, ammo and fuel dumps, box cars, trucks, and even radar stations. Flying at speeds of up to 600 miles per hour, the P-51s were the fastest thing in the sky.
Rodgers wrote of an August 12, 1944 mission in Southern France, by the 332nd Fighter Group. "It was my first strafing mission. We went into the target area at 15,000 feet. I was the number four man in the lead flight. Our leader brought us over the target, which were radar stations near the coast. Then he rolled his plane over on its back and went down on the target in almost a vertical dive. I had been nervous up to this time but when I started my dive it all left me. Now my attention was centered on bringing my ship out of the dive because it had gathered tremendous speed and the ground was rushing toward me. I still hadn't located the target. I was slightly to the right of the ship ahead of me and I saw him veer off to the right rather sharply, but I followed the other ships ahead of me while still pushing my own ship through a near split S."
"As my ship leveled out about 50 feet above the ground, I had a glimpse of something that looked very much like the picture we had seen of radar stations. I had a chance to hold my trigger down for two seconds, then zigzagged out to sea on the deck. "When I returned to the base, I found out that our flight of eight had lost two ships, one of them being the ship that had veered to my right. I had no vision of the flak," the Colonel concluded.
After the war, Rodgers was eventually promoted to command the 99th Fighter Squadron "The Red Tails" at Lockbourne Air Base. In 1948, the Air Force was integrated under orders from President Harry S. Truman. Col. Rodgers, a twenty-two-year veteran of the Air Force and a 17-year Civil Service worker, spent one year working for NASA as a program manager on the mission of Apollo 13. In technical circles, Rodgers was prominent in the development of electronics and communications procedures with NORAD.
Following his retirement in 1983, Rodgers became known for his exceedingly generous contributions of his time to public organizations in his hometown. He also attended as many events honoring the Tuskegee Airmen whenever and wherever he could. In his spare time, Rodgers spent many fun times with his wife Suzanne and engaging in his favorite hobby as an amateur radio operator.
So there you have it, a short look at the life of a remarkable man - one of us, a flying man of Tuskegee.