SOARING TO NEW HEIGHTS
Some 85 to 90 years ago, three young Laurens County boys played in the cotton fields and stared into the sky as their parents and the older members of their families picked cotton and other crops from the field.
Hardly any of them had ever seen an airplane in their young and isolated lives. In the next two decades, each of them would not only learn what an airplane was, they would learn to fly some of the fastest airplanes in the U.S. Air Force.
Each of these three men took separate career paths. One flew bomber planes, another fighter planes, and the last one flew jet planes higher and faster than few people had eve flown before.
On Veteran’s Day, the State of Georgia will honor these three men by naming the intersection of U.S. Highway 80 West and the U.S. Highway 441 By-pass as the Herndon Cummings, Marion Rodgers, John Whitehead Tuskegee Airmen Interchange.
The legislation was sponsored by Representatives Matt Hatchett, Bubber Epps and Jimmy Pruett at the request of Laurens County Commissioner, Buddy Adams, who has been the driving force in honoring veterans in Laurens County since his election to office in 2008. Adams proposed legislation to name the two legs of the by-pass for Lt. Kelso Horne, the cover man of Life magazine’s first D-Day issue and Lt. Col. Clyde Stinson, who was awarded two Silver Stars for heroism and was one of the highest ranking officers killed in actual combat in Vietnam.
Of the estimated one thousand men who bore the title of a “Tuskegee Airmen,” three of these remarkable aviators can call Laurens County, Georgia home.
One, Major Herndon Cummings, was a native of Laurens County, while two others, Col. John Whitehead and Col. Marion Rodgers spent portions of their childhood living in Laurens County. The legacy of these three men lived well beyond their years as a separate unit of the United States Army Air Force. Laurens County’s three Tuskegee Airmen went on to remarkable achievements in aviation for decades beyond their service during World War II.
Herndon Cummings was born on April 25, 1919 in the Burgamy District of Laurens County, Georgia. The son of Joseph and Mollie Hill Cummings, Don’s interest in aviation was sparked on Christmas Day in 1928 when his father gave him a toy German zeppelin. His interest in flying was forever sealed in 1936 when Don and his brother took a five-dollar ride in a Ford Tri-Motor plane. As the plane soared in the skies west of Dublin, Don underwent a life-altering experience. "By the time the plane landed, I knew what I wanted to do," he recalled.
Cummings enlisted in the Air Corps on June 25, 1942. He trained in the B-25 bomber at Tuskegee and later at Lockbourne Air Force Base in Columbus, Ohio, where he would later make his home. Of the nine hundred to a thousand men who successfully completed their training at Tuskegee, most trained as fighter pilots in the P-51 fighter and other fighters.
Lt. Cummings was assigned to the 477th Bomber Group, which was based at Selfridge Army Air Field, Michigan in 1944. Many of the members of the group were commanded by white officers, who according to some, favored white officers over the black officers. Concerns over racial troubles in Detroit forced the group to move to Godman Field near Fort Knox, Kentucky. By March 1945, the 477th was uprooted again and moved to Freemen Army Field at Seymour, Indiana.
The field at Freeman maintained two clubs, one for supervisors and one for trainees, but were defacto separated between blacks and whites. In the early days of April 1945, the relationships between the commanding officers and the black pilots began to deteriorate rapidly. On April 9, 1945, the day of the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, more than 100 of the airmen were arrested and placed in jail for twelve days until they were released by order of new President, Harry S. Truman.
Just weeks after they were freed, Lt. Cummings was promoted to captain to command a bomber. After completing his four-year stint in the Army Air Corps, Cummings served in the Air Force Reserve and attained the rank of major before retiring after twenty years of service.
Cummings earned a commercial pilot's license, but never utilized it because there were virtually no opportunities for employment of black pilots. He went to work laying bricks in order to support his family and send his two daughters to college.
In one of his last official reunions with his fellow Tuskegee airmen, Major Cummings was invited to sit on the stage during the inauguration of President Barack Obama. He died some six months later on July 2, 2009.
Marion Rodgers was born in Detroit, Michigan on September 23, 1921 and raised to about age eight in Dublin, Georgia until his family moved to New York. Rodgers grew interested in aviation when a man in the neighborhoold began to restore a damaged bi-plane. From that point forward, Rodgers would spend his free time going to airports watching plans take off and land.
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. Eventually, Marion was accepted into flight school at Keesler Field. In May 1943, I'm sent to Pre-Flight Training at Tuskegee Army Air Field.
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.
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 Lt. Rodgers flew 370 hours as am escort for B-17s and B-24s.
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 N.A.S.A. 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 N.O.R.A.D..
After his retirement in 1983, Rodgers became known for his exceedingly kind contributions of his time to public organizations in his home town. 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.
Just a few weeks ago, Rodgers, 93 years old, was treated to one more flight in a P-51 over Camarillo, California. The flight in the fighter plane which turned the tide of the air war in Europe came nearly seventy years after his first flight.
Col. John Whitehead, known to his fellow pilots as “Mr. Death,” was born in Lawrenceville, Virginia in 1924. Like Col. Rodgers, Whitehead spent several of the years of his youth in Laurens County. Lt. Whitehead flew several missions over Europe in World War II.
Col. Whitehead was the Air Force’s first African-American test pilot. Many of his hours in the air came while he was a pilot instructor for the Air Force in the 1950s. A former President of the Tuskegee Airmen, Inc., Whitehead was given his nickname, not because he cheated death on many times, but because of his gaunt looking face, supposedly resembling that of a skull.
In his 30-year career, Col. Whitehead spent more than 9,500 hours in the air, with some 5000 of them coming in jet aircraft. In January 1951, Whitehead was featured on the cover of Ebony magazine.
After serving as a pilot in Vietnam and retiring from the military, Whitehead served as an instructor and Air Force Liaison at Boeing and Northrop Aircraft.
Whitehead was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross with three oak leaf clusters, the Air Medal with seven oak leaf clusters and numerous other citations and medals. He was a man of firsts, the first African American to graduate from the U.S. Air Force Experimental Test Pilots School, the first African American to fly the B-47 bomber and the first African American to serve as an instructor of jet pilots.