A Jew and the Tuskegee Airmen

The following is a guest post from Bruce Wolk, the author of the soon-to-be published book titled Stars on My Wings, which sounds amazing.

More than two years in the writing, “Stars on My Wings,” is based on 93 first-person interviews with Jewish WWII veterans who were involved in all aspects of the air war and in all branches of the service. The experiences of the airmen and women cover all theaters of combat including Europe, The Pacific, China-Burma-India (CBI), and lesser known commands such as the Persian Gulf and Caribbean.  It is both a book about the Jewish experience and the broader experience of men and women at war. These may be among the last interviews conducted with these incredible people.

We’ll be sure to keep the readers informed when the book is published.

About three years ago, I embarked on a journey to capture the remembrances of Jewish WWII airmen and women who had served in the Army, Army Air Corps, Navy, Marines and WASP.

I initially felt that too much time had passed to collect any meaningful stories and that anything that could have possibly been written about Jewish airmen had been written. In addition, I feared that even if I were to find veterans willing to talk to me, what could they remember? I was not only accepted by the veterans, but I was drawn into a world where I was respected as you might respect a younger brother. The result of more than 100 interviews has been a book entitled: “Stars on My Wings.”

What sets “Stars on My Wings” apart from other WWII books is that I intentionally asked questions from a Jewish as well as a military perspective.

The issue of Jews at war in WWII is complex and often the interviews yielded surprises. When exploring the chapter entitled My Brother’s Keeper, I heard stories of the love and respect the Jewish aviators had for the Tuskegee Airmen not only as fellow aviators, but of one minority group respecting what the minorities of another group had endured.

The Jewish Journey of James Robinson

A story that was particularly poignant was that of First Lieutenant and B-24 Navigator James Robinson,* who was with the 8th Air Force. His squadron flew more than 30 missions into Nazi occupied Europe at a time in the war when the attrition rate among bomber crews was particularly high. The usual targets of his squadron were oil refineries, bridges, railroad marshaling yards and German troop concentrations.  There were no so-called “Milk Runs.” All of the targets were heavily protected by anti-aircraft and German fighter plane support.

It was on a mission to Croatia when he encountered the Tuskegee Airmen.

They had finished their bomb run when the flak came at them with ferocity.  The B-24 got beat up pretty badly. One of the rudders was badly damaged and an engine got knocked out. As navigator, Robinson was given the responsibility for plotting a course to a safe area. Croatia was pro-Nazi and virulently anti-Semitic. The nearest airfield was where the Tuskegee Airmen were based.

The bomber made it across most of the Adriatic when another engine went dead. The veterans have told me, that a crippled bomber, much like a wounded animal was easy pickings for enemy fighters. They called for help and were soon picked up by several “Tuskegee” fighter planes who escorted them back to their base. Robinson remembered the “wonderful jive talk,” as he described it, between the fighter pilots and their base. At dinner that night Robinson, a practicing Jew, felt the need to apologize to the men who had saved him for the racism that existed and how not everyone felt that way. Soon afterwards, he was sent Stateside and finished out his remaining months in the Army Air Corps in California. He decided it would be an interesting experience to hitch back to his home in Ohio.

Near to the Arizona border, he was picked up by an African-American couple and traveled with them for a couple of days.

One night they pulled into a hotel and went to the front desk in order to register. Mr. Robinson was easily able to register for a room. However, the African American couple was denied accommodation due to their skin color.

He told the clerk that they were all traveling together, but the clerk was adamant saying he was sorry, but it was the policy. He asked the clerk where African-Americans could stay.  The clerk told them of a hotel a few miles away. Jim ripped up his registration card for the “Whites Only” hotel and he insisted that he wanted to stay at the hotel where the black couple could gain accommodations.

When he got home, he wasted no time in trying to get a degree. He registered for classes at a prestigious university, but had heard nothing for months.

He had had enough waiting around so he went down to the admissions office and was finally told, ‘Mr. Robinson, I’m sorry to tell you – I’m just an employee here – I don’t make the rules for the university – but the university has a Jewish quota…If you would like to apply for next semester, I can almost guarantee that there’ll be a spot for you next semester.’”

He was in his uniform, complete with battle ribbons such as the Distinguished Flying Cross and multiple awards of the Air Medal, and they turned him down solely because he was a Jew.

Robinson stormed out of the admissions office angry and disgraced. He enrolled at another university where he would receive an accounting degree.

He would remain a life-long advocate for Civil Rights never forgetting the Tuskegee Airmen or his own humiliation at being refused an education at the school of his choice.

*The name, outfit and specific details of this story have had to be modified until the book is in a published format.

(Copyright © 2010, by Bruce H. Wolk)

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