By JEFF MEEK
One of the most famous units during World War II was a newly formed group of African-American fighter pilots who were designated as the 332nd Fighter Group - 99th Fighter Squadron. They became known as the “Redtails,” assigned to the 15th Army Air Force and went on to serve with distinction in their P-51 Mustangs. One of those heroic pilots, Lt. Col. (Ret.) George Hardy, was the guest of the Ouachita Speakers Series last week.
Hardy began his presentation by talking about racial segregation, saying the Redtails came about because of racial segregation, when those of African American ancestry were excluded from many important aspects of military service. “That’s the way life was back then,” said Hardy. He and his comrades were all but ignored by the other white servicemen.
He wanted to join the Navy, like his brother had done, but his father talked him out of it and so he joined the Army in March 1943, at age 17. “I wanted to fly off a carrier, but the Navy failed me because of my teeth. By the way, these are my original teeth,” Hardy said to an auditorium full of laughter.
Eventually he left home in Philadelphia for basic training in July 1943, then two months later went to Keesler Field in Mississippi, then began flight training in Dec. 1943, as an aviation cadet.
In 1944, he earned his wings, and became a 2nd Lt. In November, he was transferred to Waterboro Army Air Field (AAF) in South Carolina for combat training in a P-47 Thunderbolt.
Hardy then went overseas and checked out in the best fighter, the P-51 Mustang. Hardy flew out of Italy, completing 21 combat missions over German, mostly as high altitude escort missions for heavy bombers, but other missions included strafing of ground targets. Back in the states he was sent to Lockbourne AAF, Ohio, where he was assigned to the 99th Fighter Squadron, flying P-47s. Hardy was discharged in Nov. 1946.
In Sept. 1947, he moved to New York for a year of engineer school at NYU, finishing the schooling in May, 1948. Hardy then returned to active duty, returning to Lockbourne to fly with the 301st Fighter Squadron, 332nd Fighter Group, again with P-47s.
Hardy attended an electronics school for 50 weeks in Sept. In April, 1948, the Air Force made plans to integrate. Thereafter, President Truman issued an executive order in July, 1948, about plans to officially integrate the U.S. service branches. That finally happened in 1949, when the Department of Defense approved the plan for the Air Force.
He graduated from the school in Aug. 1949, and was sent to Guam, assigned to the 19th Bomb Group (B-29s). Now things were quite different. ”All the men working for me were white,” Hardy said. “But I got along with everyone.” The job was to supervise approximately 25 men in maintenance of electronic equipment on the aircraft.
Then came the Korean War and on July 12, 1950, Hardy was about to fly a mission as a co-pilot. But his new Commander pulled him off the flight. “I was depressed of course,” he remembers. Later that day Hardy learned that flight had been shot down with two of the crew captured, some soon dying in prison camps. Eventually Hardy flew 45 missions during the Korean War.
Then he was back to the U.S. for seven more months of schooling to learn all about armaments. He became an Armament Electronics Officer and spent several years of duty at SAC with B-36s.
Along the way, he met an officer that told him he should consider getting more into technology, which he did, and eventually earned an Electrical Tech degree. Hardy worked in Limestone, Maine with the 42nd Bomb Wing, a B-36 unit. He was there for 2.5 years, then went to the Air Force Institute of Technology at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. He graduated in 1957 with a B.S. in electrical engineering.
Hardy went to Japan (assigned to the Third Bomb Wing), was promoted to major, then returned to the U.S. in 1960, and became a Squadron Commander of an armored electronics maintenance squadron.
At the time of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, Hardy returned to the Institute for graduate school. In Aug. 1964, he graduated with a Master’s Degree in Systems Engineering. Hardy served 5.5 years in the Electronics Systems Division-Air Force Systems Command in Hanscom, Massachusetts.
As the Vietnam War raged, in late 1969, Hardy was selected to be a pilot of AC-119 gunships, at age 45. At their base in DaNang he was called “the old man.”
As he reflected back on his many years in uniform, Hardy said it all started during a time of segregation and ended with him being assigned as a detachment commander of white troops. He had come full circle.
Also in the Village with Hardy was the traveling exhibit called, “Rise Above.” It’s a fully functional mobile theater with a 160 degree panoramic screen, featuring an original short film that tells the story of the Tuskegee Airman and the many obstacles they overcame to fly and fight for our country during World War II.
The mobile trailer truck is operated by Terry and Jeannette Hollis, who travel all of the U.S. with the truck, showing the program to children and adults. In the Village during the week of the exhibit, several hundred local school children attended for viewing the film and to meet Hardy.
The program’s goal is to motivate watchers to aim high, believe in yourself, never quit, be ready to go, use your brain and expect to win.
Next for the OSS program is Dr. Glen Jones, who will present, “Changing Attitudes with Conversations,” at 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 25, at Woodlands Auditorium.
The 17th president of Henderson State University, Jones is a 1992 accounting graduate of the university, earned his juris doctor from the University of Arkansas Bowen School of Law and a master of laws in taxation from the University of Florida College of Law. He is board chairman for Southern Bancorp and a board member for Baptist Health.