Riverside — Dec. 29, 1944. Swallowed by clouds that consumed ground and sky, 17 American bombers returning from a mission toVerona, Italy, found it impossible to return to their home base. Safety lay in uncharted territory —Ramitelli Army Airfield, home to the all-black 332nd Fighter Group that came to
be known as the Tuskegee Airmen.
In the segregated U.S. Army of World War II, white and black troops did not sleep in the same quarters. Not until Ramitelli, when brutal weather grounded the all-white bomber crews at the airfield on the Adriatic coast for five days.
Tuskegee Airmen and crew members they escorted or who landed at Ramitelli will share their experiences at the 8th Annual Tuskegee Airmen Celebration at the University of California, Riverside on Saturday, Nov. 17, from to in the Orbach Science Library. The event is free and open to the public, but reservations are required as seating is limited. Parking in Lot 10 is $5. RSVP to Carole Meyer-Reith at (951) 827-1244.
The theme of this year’s event, “The Tuskegee Airmen: Heroes at Ramitelli,” celebrates a part of the Tuskegee Airmen story that was not well-known until the George Lucas/Steven Spielberg hit film “Red Tails” was released in January, said Ruth Jackson, university librarian and founder of The Tuskegee Airmen Archive at UC Riverside.
“It was not until the Truman administration that military units were ordered to integrate,” Jackson said. “For the white bomber pilots who landed at Ramitelli, it was the first time most of them had ever lived in the same facility as blacks. We’ve invited five Tuskegee Airmen and four white bomber crew members they escorted or interacted with in some way to share their stories about the war and about the experience at Ramitelli. Some of them haven’t seen each other in 67 years. This is about social issues and integration and military exploits, and how these experiences changed their lives.”
Panelists representing the bomber crews are:
Harold Kempffer, a ball turret gunner in a B-24 bomber in the 830th Bomb Squadron of the 485th Bomb Group. He was in one of the bombers that landed at Ramitelli and was featured in the documentary “New Year’s at Ramitelli: A Safe Haven for Change.” He lives in Apple Valley, Minn.
Jim Scheib, co-pilot of a B-24 bomber in the 831st Bomb Squadron of the 485th Bomb Group. Stationed in Italy from October 1944 until the end of the war, he helped pilot one of the bombers that landed at Ramitelli. He also was interviewed in the documentary “New Year’s at Ramitelli.” He lives in Tucson, Ariz.
Jerry Whiting, whose father, Wayne Whiting, was the tail gunner in Scheib’s crew when the aircraft landed at Ramitelli. With his father, Jerry Whiting co-authored “I’m Off to War, Mother, But I’ll Be Back,” the story of the elder Whiting’s experiences as a tail gunner in WWII. He lives in Walnut Creek, Calif.
Bill Williams, a ball turret gunner in the 828th Bomb Squadron of the 485th Bomb Group. He was not with the group that landed at Ramitelli, but his plane was damaged so badly on one mission to Vienna that it could not keep up with the squadron and was escorted back to its base in Italy by a single Tuskegee Airman fighter pilot. He is from Visalia, Calif.
Tuskegee Airmen from the Ramitelli era on the panel are:
Robert Friend, a pilot in the 301st Fighter Squadron of the 332ndd Fighter Group. He flew 161 missions and was the combat operations officer at the squadron and group levels, responsible for planning and organizing the implementation of strategic and tactical air missions. He lives in Irvine, Calif.
Leo Gray, a pilot in the 100th Fighter Squadron of the 332nd Fighter Group, who flew 15 combat missions. He left active duty in 1946 but remained in the U.S. Air Force Reserve until 1984. He lives in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.
Clarence Huntley, chief mechanic in the 100th Fighter Squadron of the 332nd Fighter Group. He lives in Los Angeles.
Theodore Lumpkin , intelligence officer and navigator in the 100th Fighter Squadron of the 332nd Fighter Group, who briefed and debriefed pilots on their missions. He joined the USAF Reserve in 1946 and retired from the Reserve in 1979. He lives in Los Angeles.
Charles McGee, the most decorated of the Tuskegee Airmen and one of the most decorated American pilots of all time. He will discuss the history and background of the establishment of the Tuskegee Airmen base at Ramitelli. He was stationed in Italy with the 302nd Fighter Squadron of the 332nd Fighter Group, escorting bombers over Germany, Austria and the Balkans, and became a careerr officer in the U.S. Air Force. He holds an Air Force record of 409 fighter combat missions flown in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. He lives in Maryland.
The annual Tuskegee Airmen Celebration honors airmen and women who were a part of the famed Tuskegee Experience at Moton Field, Tuskegee, Ala., and at other associated Army Air Force bases. The graduates of the program, which trained the first African-American pilots between 1941 and 1946, established an enviable record during World War II flying escort for heavy bombers. Allies christened them “Red Tails” or “Red-Tail Angels” because of the crimson paint on the tail sections of their aircraft.
UC Riverside established an archive in 2005 to document the history of the airmen and women and has held an annual program since that time to recall and celebrate their history and accomplishments.
Photo caption: An armorer loads armor-piercing, incendiary and tracer 50-caliber bullets into a P-51 aircraft flown by Tuskegee Airmen in Italy in1944. Photo courtesy the Tuskegee Airmen Archive at UCR