Tuskegee, Alabama (CNN) — Herbert Carter and Mildred Hemmons had no time for dating in the early months of 1942.
He was training to become a member of the Tuskegee Airmen, the nation’s first military program for African-American pilots.
She was the bold, daring woman who caught his eye. At 18, she’d become the first black woman in Alabama to earn a pilot’s license. She had hopes of becoming a military pilot, too.
Flying was intoxicating. It provided Herbert and Mildred a sense of freedom — to be themselves, to dream big. The in-your-face racism of the segregated South was gone, if only for a while. In the air, the sky was literally the limit.
It takes pioneers to force change. Herbert and Mildred would play their part in the years ahead. But in those early days, they didn’t see themselves as trailblazers. They were young and in love.
More than anything, flight provided a rare opportunity to see each other. He’d call her up on Fridays: “Are you gonna be flying this weekend?”
“Of course,” she’d say.
They’d pick a time to meet. Their rendezvous point: 3,000 feet above a bridge at Lake Martin, 25 miles away. He’d be flying a repaired AT6 trainer. She’d be in a much slower Piper J-3 Cub.
“When I’d get to Lake Martin, I’d see this bright yellow Cub putt-putting along,” he said. “I’d be real proud: She was on time and on target.”
He’d pull down and fly in formation with her. They couldn’t communicate by radio; her Cub didn’t have one. All they could do was smile, wave and blow kisses.
Seeing each other in flight created a bond. When they flew together, it was as if they were holding hands in midair. At the end of their aerial encounter, he’d peel away, only to circle back. He’d sneak up behind her, pull in front and leave her in a trail of airwash. Her tiny craft shook mightily. She’d come to expect it every weekend.
“It didn’t faze me,” she’d say. “I was the better pilot. … I just didn’t fly the fastest aircraft.”
The two would become known as the first couple of the Tuskegee Airmen. Herbert would go on to earn the rank of lieutenant colonel in a 27-year Air Force career. He remains one of the few men in U.S. history to be a fighter pilot and a squadron maintenance chief, a designation he notes with pride. Rarely is a pilot also charged with making sure the squadron’s planes are airworthy.
Mildred is counted among the history-making Tuskegee Airmen, too. Yet her dream of flying for her country was snubbed. A black woman, she was told, couldn’t earn her wings.
“She was one of those unfortunate victims of prejudice, bigotry and discrimination,” says Carter, now 94. “She wanted to go as high and as fast as she could.
“If she had been able to get into the Air Corps, she’d have been amazing.”
Instead, she would tell people: “I did the next best thing. I married a fighter pilot.”
The two wed in 1942, a month after he earned his wings as a second lieutenant. He would go off to war in April 1943; she’d remain in Tuskegee, where she worked at the airfield.
He would write letters nearly every day. But the war didn’t fully sink in for her until she went to the Tuskegee movie theater one day. There, in a newsreel on the screen, she saw her husband and his unit tending to their aircraft. She wept.
An antidote to racism
On the screen, the Tuskegee Airmen gather around each other on an airstrip in a foreign land and shout their motto: “The last plane, the last bullet, the last man, the last minute, we fight!”
The movie theater erupts with raucous applause. This time, Lt. Col. Herbert E. Carter watches with special pride. It’s as if he’s transported with his fellow airmen seven decades back in time.
On a recent Sunday, Carter and other surviving Tuskegee Airmen, along with a host of dignitaries and VIPs, packed a campus theater at Tuskegee University, the historically black college founded in 1881 by Booker T. Washington.
They were on hand for a special screening of “Red Tails,” George Lucas’ newly released action-adventure film that chronicles America’s first all-black aerial combat unit.
Tuskegee was buzzing. People on campus noted it took Lucas 20 years to persuade Hollywood to make the movie. Time and again, the legendary “Star Wars” creator was told America wasn’t ready for such a film — that blacks don’t go to theaters in large enough numbers to support a $93 million production.
The message around Tuskegee: Tell everyone you know to watch the film because the black community wants movies about heroes, not gangsters.
Carter and other Tuskegee Airmen had gone to Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch in California multiple times to meet with filmmakers and give them insight into the historic World War II effort. Each airman was paired with an actor to provide first-hand accounts as members of the 332nd Fighter Group. The nickname “Red Tails” was coined after the group painted the tails of their aircraft red.
The movie focuses on the airmen’s combat, beginning in North Africa and then moving into the European theater. Like Lucas’ “Star Wars” creations, the combat scenes are spectacular.
The Red Tails hold a special significance in American history, both racially and militarily. U.S. bombers were getting shot down at increasingly alarming rates. Fighter pilots protecting the bombers would peel off to engage enemy aircraft, leaving the bombers vulnerable to attack. Each lost bomber carried a crew of 10 or 11 Americans.
The Tuskegee Airmen were asked to adopt a different strategy: Never stray from the bombers. Only a handful of the thousands of bombers they protected during the war were lost.
Their stellar reputation became legend: If you flew a bomber, you wanted the Red Tails. Still, the Tuskegee Airmen recall seeing looks of consternation from the bomber cockpits when the white pilots realized their escorts were African-American.
The military brass in Washington hadn’t expected the Tuskegee Airmen to succeed; the program had only been started as an experiment. A 1925 study by the Army War College concluded that blacks lacked intelligence, ambition and courage to serve in prominent positions within the U.S. military. “All officers, without exception, agree that the Negro lacks initiative, displays little or no leadership, and cannot accept responsibility,” the report stated.
The men and women of Tuskegee would prove otherwise.
Herbert Carter was among the original 33 Tuskegee pilots, though the term “Tuskegee Airmen” also referred to the thousands of navigators, instructors, nurses, parachute packers and others — both military and civilian — who kept the unit humming.
Carter flew 77 combat missions during the war. He was also responsible for making sure all aircraft were suitable for flight. (In the movie, he’s the maintenance chief seen riding a motorcycle from plane to plane.)
His creed: “The best antidote to racism is excellence in one’s performance.”
Mildred Hemmons was the first civilian hired for the Tuskegee air project. Her first job: bulldoze trees to make way for the airfield.
Herbert nicknamed her “Mike” for her tomboy looks. While other women in Tuskegee wore skirts and dresses, she dressed the part of an aviator: leather jacket, jodhpurs and leather boots up to her knees.
She called him “Geno,” a play on his middle name, Eugene, her way of preparing him for war in case he was stationed in Italy.
As the movie ends and the credits roll, the names of the Tuskegee Airmen who helped the filmmakers were listed. To the legendary lieutenant colonel, one name stands out above all others.
… Mildred Hemmons Carter …
He wished she’d been by his side for the movie premiere. For 69 years, they’d playfully argued as to who was the lead pilot.
“I’m not ashamed to admit it,” he says now. “I made a good wingman.”
An aviation career shot down
Mildred was well on her way to a successful aviation career. She learned to fly under C. Alfred “Chief” Anderson, the chief instructor at Tuskegee and the man considered the father of black aviation.
Sometimes, Anderson would say, “Mildred, I feel like eating some Gulf shrimp for lunch,” and they’d get in a plane and fly to Mobile along the Alabama coast.
With Anderson’s help, Mildred became the first female pilot to join the state’s Civil Air Patrol Squadron in 1942. But she was never called to go on patrol; racism, she learned, had gotten in the way.
Determined to fly for her country, she applied to become a WASP, a member of the groundbreaking Women Airforce Service Pilots who ferried planes from factories to airfields. (Women of any race were barred from flying combat at that time.)
By then, Mildred had her business degree and well over 100 hours of flying. She was named “Miss Tuskegee Army Flying School” by the airfield newsletter, and Anderson ranked her among his best pilots.
But the rejection came swiftly. “The U.S. government does not have plans at this time to include colored female pilots in the WASP.”
Shaken, she called Herbert.
“Mil, what is it?” he said.
“It’s race again,” she said.
He rushed to her side. She ripped up the letter. He hugged her.
“Keep the faith, Sweet. We’ll get there.”
Her rejection made him more determined to succeed.
“I thought, ‘Well, damn it, I’ll show them that we can do it.’ “
They held each other’s hands.
During painful moments, that’s how they communicated. “So much physically can be translated by holding hands between people who are close without having to verbalize,” he says.
He called it “her hand of understanding, her hand of ‘I care.’ “
“When things would get rough on me,” he says, “I had to remember that Mildred wouldn’t let this get to her.”
She’d reach out her hand and say, “Geno, it’s going to be OK.”
“That’s all I needed. And I’d go out there and fly the hell outta that plane the next time.”
Their hands locked in celebration on August 21, 1942, when they wed at the airfield’s chapel. On her finger, she proudly wore her engagement ring and wedding band. He’d purchased them for $175 with nearly every dollar in his pocket.
“Best investment I’ve ever made,” he says.
At war, he painted her nickname, Mike, on his plane.
A visit from the first lady
The two first spotted each other in 1939. He was a senior football player in high school at Tuskegee’s then-boarding school. She was a college freshman and a majorette in the band.
Their paths crossed during practices.
“Who’s that?” Mildred asked a friend when she saw the handsome 5-foot-7 quarterback.
He was instantly attracted to her. She wasn’t like the timid, shy girls around campus. There was something about her confidence, like she knew she was going places.
“I could just see her energy.”
He worked at a local grocery store run by his brother. He’d see her shopping and wave. He couldn’t muster much courage beyond that. Socially and academically, he felt below her.
But by the next year, he was enrolled in Tuskegee’s civilian pilot training program. He didn’t enter to become a war hero. He was just trying to “get the draft board off my back.” His plan: Get his pilot’s license, serve his time in the military, then become a veterinarian for farmers in Texas, flying from farm to farm.
“But I got into that first plane and something bit me.”
He kept hearing there was a young woman in the program, too.
“One day, I’m coming out of class, and who is there but Mildred!”
He grew more intrigued. For their first date, he took her to a campus dance. A brass band played mostly melodies. It was, he says, “magical.”
He was from Amory, a small railroad town in northeastern Mississippi. His mother was Native American and came from a long line of midwives. His father was African-American and helped bring electricity to town, serving as the superintendent for utilities, a prominent position for a black man of that era.
At 16, his parents put him on a train bound for Tuskegee. Education ended in ninth grade in Amory, and his parents wanted the best for their children. (All 11 would graduate from Tuskegee.)
Before then, he’d never stepped foot outside Mississippi and had only gone beyond Amory a couple of times. He wept as he told his mother good-bye.
“You’re going to get your diploma,” she assured him.
He arrived in Tuskegee to a “black oasis” where African-Americans had their own theater, drugstore, grocery, haberdashery — everything.
Mildred was born in Benson, Alabama, the daughter of a successful businessman and postmistress. The offspring of an affair between a white man and black woman, Mildred’s mother was sent to Tuskegee at an early age to get a good education. Mildred’s father started as a foreman of a local sawmill, but soon grew professionally. He managed a business school at a junior college for African-Americans in North Carolina, and eventually helped administer the prestigious VA hospital in Tuskegee.
Mildred was equally industrious. She entered college at 15 and earned her business degree before she was 20.
During that time, she kept seeing all these young men by the dozens apply to become pilots and thought to herself, “I can do that.”
On February 1, 1941, she entered history, becoming the first black woman in the state to earn her pilot’s license. A month later, flying solo, she came in for a landing at Tuskegee. As she set down the plane, she saw a commotion and a throng of photographers.
She was told somebody wanted to meet her.
“How’s flying?” asked first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who had come to the airfield to publicly support the project.
A photographer captured the young female aviator standing next to the first lady, who towered over the 5-foot-5 pilot.
The first lady’s visit garnered headlines across the country. Mrs. Roosevelt hopped in a plane with Chief Anderson, and the two flew together for 30 minutes. The first lady’s message was unequivocal: Blacks were more than capable of flying.
“Well, you can fly all right,” she told Anderson.
Recognition 70 years later
The Tuskegee Airmen fought for “double victory,” to win the war overseas and to secure equal rights back home.
Racism may have cut down Mildred Carter’s dream of flying in the military, but it never stopped her ambitions. She piloted planes until 1985, when a broken hip knocked her out of commission. She was 64 by then.
She and her husband traveled the world speaking for equality, attending Tuskegee Airmen shows whenever and wherever they could. They’d both tell their experiences with the historic group. After he retired from the Air Force, they returned to Tuskegee. He served as dean of admissions for the university and could be spotted around town driving his cherry red 1955 Thunderbird. They raised three children.
Though Mildred never flew for the military, she went on to mentor female African-American fighter pilots. She’d tell audiences to never stop dreaming, to leave the world better than before.
“I’d be an astronaut today,” she’d say.
Last February, 70 years after she earned her pilot’s license, she received a letter from the government. Again she read it with astonishment, but this time she didn’t rip it up. She’d been declared a member of the WASPs and given a medal with the inscription: “The First Women in History to Fly America.”
“Look, Geno,” she said. “They sent this to me. Why?”
“Because you’re a Tuskegee Airman.”
She paused. “Awww, seriously?”
“They’ve finally come to realize you made contributions, too. Better late than never.”
As the months went by, both looked forward to the debut of “Red Tails.” She couldn’t travel with her husband when he went to Skywalker Ranch, but she talked extensively with filmmakers for a recently released documentary called “Double Victory.”
Mildred’s health took a turn for the worse in late 2011, and their humble home turned into a hospice.
On the morning of October 21, she had just been bathed. “Where’s Geno?” she asked her nurse.
Mildred asked that her husband come to the room. Like she’d done so many times before, she held out her hand. He felt her soft touch.
They didn’t need to say anything.
At the age of 90, Mildred Hemmons Carter passed away, her wingman at her side.
“She never lost that beautiful smile and personality,” he says.
In the ensuing months, Carter has kept himself active. The movie’s release has ensured that. Talking about his wife helps, too. Their home is like an aviation museum, with heaps of awards and recognitions from presidents and lawmakers over the years.
His wife made him promise one last thing: that he’d live until 100.
“I’m gonna be waiting on you,” she told him. “You’ve got six more years.”
He smiles. “I don’t intend to let her down.”