By: Sandra Thompson
I read with sadness the other day that we lost another special brother-in-arms, Tuskegee Airman John ‘Captain Jack’ Lyle, dead at 98. He was one of the 13 remaining Tuskegee Airmen. Not only are they a part of the dwindling WWII and Korean Veterans we are losing daily, but they are part of a very special group that broke through racial barriers to integrate the military and make it what it is today.
Although black Americans have had a part in every major U.S. war, it wasn’t until an executive order by President Harry S. Truman in 1948, that the U.S. military became integrated. Two of the most notable groups who paved the way were the Buffalo Soldiers and the Tuskegee Airmen. After the Civil War, Congress authorized the formation of six segregated black regiments to serve in peace time; these included the Ninth and Tenth Cavalries, which were stationed in the Great Plains and responsible for building forts and maintaining order. The Buffalo Soldiers earned their name from the Cheyenne Indians, not only for the color of their skin, but also for their abilities in battle. In 1941, these two regiments came together to form the Fourth Calvary Brigade, which was led by Benjamin O. Davis, Sr., the Army’s first African-American general.
As a way to recognize the contributions of African Americans, “Negro History Week” was created in 1926 by Carter G. Woodson. It wasn’t until 1976 that President Gerald Ford finally issued the proclamation that it be celebrated each February.
This month, we celebrate our local African American Heroes, men such as SSgt Raymond Phelps, who stepped up to serve his country during the Korean War. Raymond originally wanted to go into the Air Force but ended up in the Marines! Once the war was over and he was sent home, he was not done giving to his country, so he joined the Army and went on to serve in Vietnam.
Men also like Chief Master Sergeant Charles H. Derrick, who was born in Athens and graduated from Trinity High School in 1963 and joined the Air Force. He served all over the world in his career, including places such as RAF Lakenheath in the United Kingdom and Phan Rang, in the Republic of Vietnam. His military awards and decorations include the Legion of Merit, Meritorious Service Medal with 4 oak leaf clusters, and the Air Force Commendation Medal.
David Crooks retired from the Army in 1969, but went on to be the first African American to hold the rank of Command Sergeant Major (CSM) in the Alabama State Defense Force; this force is responsible for executing the Alabama National Guard’s duties whenever the National Guard is in federal service.
And lest we forget those who gave the ultimate sacrifice, men like PFC Herman Lee Troupe, who served proudly with the 1st Cavalry Division and was killed in South Vietnam, Quang Nam province. The debt we owe these men can never be repaid.
These are just a few of our little known local heroes; to see them and many more, including our Tuskegee display, come visit us at the Alabama Veterans Museum.
By: Sandra Thompson, Director, Alabama Veterans Museum