THEY CALLED HIM "MR. DEATH"
John Lyman Whitehead, Jr. was born on May 14, 1924 in Lawrenceville, Virginia, a small town on the border of North Carolina. As a child, John would spend some time in and around Dublin.
John Whitehead attended West Virginia State College prior to entering the U.S. Army Air Force. After training at Tuskegee University, Whitehead was assigned as a pilot with the 301st Fighter Squadron of the 332nd Fighter Group of the Tuskegee Airmen. The 301st primarily performed escort duty on bombing runs over enemy positions in Europe.
"It was an experiment that was established that was supposed to fail, Whitehead said in a 1984 interview with the Portland Oregonian.
"But the people who were involved in it weren't going to let it fail," added the veteran pilot, who volunteered in the service after his 18th birthday.
"I had rather fly through this war instead of walk through," recalled Whitehead, who would enter flight training at Tuskegee shortly after his 19th birthday.
Lt. Whitehead, who earned his wings in 1944, finally made it to Europe in March 1945, a few months before Germany surrendered. As he reported for duty at an airfield near Foggia, Italy, his commanding officer, Captain Bob Friend, observed the five-foot, six-inch, 121-pound pilot's skeleton like frame.
Friend exclaimed, "My Gawd! What have they sent us now as a replacement, Mr. Death?" an Ebony Magazine writer wrote in the January 1951 cover story.
Whitehead liked the name and painted it on the nose of his plane.
In his brief stint with the 332nd, nicknamed the "Red Tails" by the bomber crews who were grateful for their fighter support and the "Black Birdmen" by their Germain fighter opponents, Lt. Whitehead was only able to fly nineteen missions. Although credited officially with only two kills, Whitehead saw plenty of action, some of it nearly fatal.
After his first hitch in the Air Force was over, Whitehead returned stateside to enroll at West Virginia University. In 1948, the former "Black Eagle," received a degree in Industrial Engineering.
Whitehead was recalled to active duty in the now integrated Air Force in 1948. As a pioneer in the training of jet pilots, Whitehead was a stern, but patient, instructor. In his tenure at Williams Air Force Base in Utah (1948-1951,) all but one of his students received their certification as a jet pilot.
President Truman's Executive Order 9981 mandated equal treatment in the Armed Forces although nearly all of Whitehead's students were white.
Lefty Selenger, "ranking officer at Williams Air Force Base told Ebony Magazine, "Whitehead has no race problem. He is better liked than most of us by the white boys."
Whitehead helped to train the Class of 1952 Charlie, which included some four hundred men who would serve as pilots in Korea and Vietnam. It was during this time when John Whitehead met Roy Black, a trainee from Lithia Springs, Georgia.
In his book, "52-Charlie," Edward Gushee in describing the relationship between the two best friend pilots, Roy "Blackie" Black and John "Whitey" Whitehead, wrote, "Blackie flew an additional twenty missions and when his tour was over, resigned his commission and returned to Georgia. John Whitehead, who had been raised in Dublin, Georgia, less than a hundred miles from where "Blackie" was born, stayed in the Air Force as a career officer.
After the Korean War, John Whitehead worked as a liaison between the Air Force and Boeing Aircraft and Northrop, two of the country's largest producers of jet aircraft. Lt. Col. Whitehead ended his 28- year career with the Air Force at Edwards Air Force Base in 1974.
In his nearly three-decade career with the Air Force, Lt. Col. John Whitehead is credited with being the Air Force's first African American test pilot and the first African-American jet pilot instructor. His heroic and dedicated service resulted in him being awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross with five oak leaf clusters, the Air Medal with seven oak leaf clusters, along with the Army Commendation Medal and the Air Force Commendation Medal.
John Whitehead, who flew millions and millions of miles in the service of his country, died on September 6, 1992 . He was laid to rest beneath a bronze marker in the Riverside National Cemetery in Sacramento, California.
Col. Whitehead, like Col. Marion Rodgers, another California Tuskegee Airman who once, albeit temporarily lived in Laurens County, joins Major Herndon Cummings to form a trio of former Laurens Countians who called themselves Tuskegee Airmen and who served their country with pride.
Presently, a bill is scheduled to be introduced into the Georgia legislature to honor these three heroes by naming the intersection of the 441 By Pass and U.S. Highway 80 West in their honor.