BY ASHLEY D. THOMAS
It has been more than 70 years since Retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Hiram E. Mann applied to the U.S. Armed Forces.
The 92 year-old told a group of eager students at Turie T. Elementary on Wednesday that he put in that same application three times before he became a pilot for the United States Air Force.
The first time he received a rejection letter stating that there were “no facilities to train Negroes to fly in any branch of the United States military.” A second time he was rejected because although he passed a rigorous mental and physical test he only had one year of post-high school education and he needed to have two. The third time was the charm.
“I told my bride I was applying for the service, and my bride (Kathadaza “Kitty’’ Henderson) told me if I volunteered she would shoot my toe off,” he said with a chuckle. “I still have my toe.”
That was the beginning of Mann’s 30-year stint as a Tuskegee Airman.
Who they were
The Tuskegee Airmen is the popular name of a group of African-American pilots who fought in World War II. Formally, they formed the 332nd Fighter Group and the 477th Bombardment Group of the United States Army Air Forces.
“They said that we did not have the mental capacity to fly airplanes back then,” Mann told the room full of fifth graders. “They said all Negroes are lazy. All Negroes are stupid. All Negroes are cowards – that if they were to get into combat they would turn tail and run.”
But that didn’t hold Mann back. In fact he shared a story with the students that proved that was as wrong as wrong can be.
“We would not give up. The eyes of America were on us,” he shared.
“You had to make the right decision or you paid with your life,” Mann explained. The strafing mission he was on that day was to destroy enemy infrastructure.
“Air fields, oil fields, anything to put them out of commission to perform properly.”
Before he took off, he popped two pieces of gum in his mouth.
It was then that a bullet whizzed by the Airman who was flying top speed of around 500 miles per hour.
“I saw the bullet and thought, ‘Is the plane moving faster than the bullet?’” Until another bullet flew by that he knew didn’t come from his own trigger.
Mann’s, along with three other planes, maneuvered into a straight-line formation, dropped the extra gas they had, and started shooting down low.
“The enemy was shooting at me,” he related. “The best way to get out was to go straight to the fire. Turning would expose more of the plane.”
When he returned to the base and got out of his plane, the gum he’d been chewing was almost non-existent.
“All I had was a mouth full of little b.b’s,” he said to laughter.
“There were holes in my plane, but I came out successful,” he added.
Message to students
Mann couldn’t stress enough the importance of education. English is extremely important. Many words have many different meanings and many words the mean similar things, he told the students.
Dr. Earl Johnson, principal of Turie T. Small Elementary, encouraged the students to listen to Mann as he instructed them to maintain a high grade point average, practice good study habits now, and to think of jobs other than basketball, football and baseball.
“Other than people of authority, your teachers, police officers and parents, when people tell you you can’t do something, if you really want to, you do so and prove them wrong,” Johnson added.