Tuskegee airman recounts flight work, segregation

Tomy Hillers

In 1941, Dr. James Bowman was a young black student at Iowa State University, then known as Iowa State College.

Bowman, a World War II veteran from central Iowa, spoke Tuesday about his experience as a member of the Tuskegee Airmen.

“I take great pride in the fact that 62 years ago I was a student here at Iowa State,” Bowman said to a group of students and faculty. “Iowa State is a much different place today.”

When he was a student, blacks were not allowed to live in the residence halls, Bowman said. But the segregation at Iowa State was no comparison to the sharp segregation he encountered after he enlisted in the United States Air Corps, he said.

“A couple of white fellas and I went south on a train after being accepted into Cadet Aviation Training,” Bowman said. “I had a ticket that guaranteed me a seat on the luxury car, but the conductor wouldn’t let me in.”

He said it eventually became clear to him that the conductor was going to make him ride on the car directly behind the coal car. After the trip from Mississippi to Alabama, Bowman’s new uniform was covered in soot.

“They sent [blacks] to Tuskegee, Ala., to see if we could fly airplanes,” Bowman said.

“This base was run by a black man named Chief Anderson, who had bought a plane and taught himself how to fly.”

He said the Tuskegee Experimental Project received very little support until first lady Eleanor Roosevelt visited the base and went for a flight with Anderson.

“Even with the support of the first lady the pilots who came out of the Tuskegee Air School were only allowed to fly in the European Theater, and were not allowed on the heroic missions,” Bowman said. “Then as the B-17 bomb squadrons began taking heavy losses, the black airmen were ordered to escort the bombers to their targets.”

He said the members of the 332nd, a black fighter squadron, flew 15,000 escort missions without losing a single bomber to enemy fighters.

“We had to prove that we could perform with anyone else,” Bowman said.

It wasn’t just the black men who had to fight to prove themselves – women stood in the same position, Bowman said.

“In 1945, our base replaced its P-40 trainers with new P-47s,” Bowman said. “I remember cheering as the planes landed, and being surprised that all the planes were flown by women.”

Bowman said he has seen blacks and women take higher levels of responsibility in the military.

Lee Ann Davis, director of minority affairs in the College of Family and Consumer Sciences, coordinated the event and said Bowman was chosen to speak because of his ability to not only tell a story but also to educate the audience.

George Hoffman, senior in civil engineering, said as a member of the Naval ROTC at Iowa State, he has been taught to adapt to different situations.

Desegregation of the military was one of those changes.

“To prepare for the future we must look to the past,” Hoffman said.