Before US Air Force (USAF) started William Tell historic air-to-air competition in 1954, Retired USAF Lt. Col. James Harvey and his team of Tuskegee Airmen went to Las Vegas (at a test airfield outside now called Nellis Air Force Base (AFB)) in 1949 and won the first ever Air Force Weapons’ Meet (Top Gun), but their victory was hidden for years and the trophy was nowhere to be found.
As told by Staff Sgt. William P. Coleman, 99th Air Base Wing Public Affairs, in the article Tuskegee Airmen compete, win 1st ever weapons meet, receive recognition 46 years later, in May of 1949, the then Chief of Staff of the Air Force sent a directive to all the fighter groups in the US, stating there would be a competition between the three highest scoring fighter groups. This was the first Top Gun Weapons Meet the Air Force ever held.
The 332nd Fighter Group, formed by Tuskegee Airmen, had impressive scores, and despite the racial tension at that time, was invited to the competition. The primary competitors were: Capt. Alva Temple, 301st Fighter Squadron; 1st Lt. Harry Stewart, 100th Fighter Squadron; and 1st Lt. James Harvey, 99th Fighter Squadron. The alternate was 1st Lt. Halbert Alexander also from the 99th FS.
There were only two trophies to be presented, one for best team and one for best individual, and Col. Benjamin Davis, 332nd Group commander, told his four pilots, “If you don’t win, don’t come back.”
The 332nd Group’s competitors were flying F-51 (P-51) Mustangs and F-82 (P-82) Twin Mustangs. The Tuskegee Airmen were flying obsolete F-47 (P-47) Thunderbolts. The missions were aerial gunnery at 12,000 and 20,000 feet, dive bombing, skip bombing, rocket firing and panel strafing.
After both aerial gunnery events, the 332nd was leading, and Temple was the high scorer.
“The next day was dive bombing, we didn’t do to good that day; no one did,” said James Harvey. “We were still leading at the end of the day, and Capt. Temple was still the high individual.”
The team moved on and got the highest score in skip bombing. Skip bombing was performed by releasing a bomb so low to the ground that it didn’t have a chance to nose over. Instead, the bomb would land flat and skip on the ground until it hit a target. Each pilot got six bombs for skip bombing.
“Capt. Temple scored six for six, Stewart scored six for six, and I scored six for six,” Harvey said. “The next day was rocket firing; Temple had six for six, Stewart had five for six, and I had five for six.”
The 332nd Fighter Group was winning the contest and had best individual score. With only one mission left, they were sure to win.
“This is my thinking, not the Air Forces,” Harvey said. “We’ve got a lock on this weapons meet; we’ve won it. Capt. Temple is winning it as high individual, and they couldn’t stand to see the 332nd win everything.”
During the panel strafing mission, one of their competitor pilots had to abort and restart the panel strafing portion of the mission and get a new plane. After getting a different airplane, that pilot scored the highest in panel staffing.
“He went up and clobbered the target, he had tons of bullets in that target,” Harvey said. “I’m thinking, not only did they give him another airplane, they gave him extra bullets.”
The 332nd won the weapons meet, but Temple was aced out of the best individual award after the panel staffing mission. However, in print, the 332nd was never recognized as the winner.
The Air Force Association puts out an almanac each year highlighting the winners of Air Force Weapons Meets, 1949 through present day. Each year the winners of the 1949 weapons meet were listed as unknown. It wasn’t until 1993, when Col. Harry Stewart returned to Nellis AFB, found the information and presented it to the Air Force that a changed was worked. As of April 1995, the almanac shows the 332nd Fighter Group as the winners of the 1949 weapons meet.
The trophy somehow disappeared, but Zellie Orr, president of the Tuskegee Airmen chapter in Atlanta, made it her mission to find the trophy. After five days she found it in the storage area of the National Museum of the US Air Force at Wright Patterson AFB, Ohio.
“If you come out of the gift shop and look 120 degrees to your right you can see it,” Harvey said. “It has been in hiding 55 years.”
Harvey went on to be the first black pilot to fly a fighter jet in Korean air space, received the Distinguished Flying Cross and retired in the grade of lieutenant colonel. Temple retired from the Air Force in the grade of lieutenant colonel. Stewart retired from the Air Force Reserves in the grade of lieutenant colonel. Alexander was killed in an F-86 aircraft accident over one of the New England States.
“Be the best you can be; don’t take anything less,” Harvey said. “When you strive to be the best, it will pay off.”
The Tuskegee Airmen were the first black military aviators in the US Army Air Corps, a precursor of the US Air Force. Pilots, navigators, maintainers, bombardiers, instructors and support staff all trained at the Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama. The Tuskegee Airmen flew more than 15,000 sorties during World War II in Europe and North Africa.
The Tuskegee Airmen painted their Curtiss P-40 Warhawks, Republic P-47 Thunderbolts and North American P-51 Mustangs with a red-tailed paint scheme.
Until April 2023 flashes of red could regularly be seen streaking through the skies around lower Alabama as pilots from the Alabama Air National Guard flew their F-16 Fighting Falcons, honing their skills in routine training flights. The men and women of the 100th Fighter Squadron Red Tails at Dannelly Field will return to honor their legacy later this year with the new F-35 Lightning II. The 301st Fighter Squadron also directly descends from the Tuskegee Airmen. The unit currently flies the F-22 Raptor.
Photo credit: U.S. Air Force and Digital Combat Simulator
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