An area historian and Lincoln University alumna is finding out details about the local connections to a World War II-era aircraft pilot training program that led to numerous African-American men becoming pioneer airmen — including in combat.
Historian Michelle Brooks said of her work researching LU's Civil Pilot Training program — the only one of its kind west of the Mississippi River — "it would be good to have more of Mid-Missouri's black history out there and accessible."
Brooks is also a former reporter for the News Tribune and former editor of the California Democrat.
She said the Civil Pilot Training program operated under the authority of the predecessor to the modern Federal Aviation Administration.
Before the United States' entry into World War II with the Imperial Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, war was already raging in Europe as Nazi Germany's forces advanced west after invading Poland in September 1939.
"The action's going on in Europe, but America's still isolationist," Brooks said of the national political mood at the time.
However, that didn't stop some Americans from having the foresight to realize "'We need to get some pilots trained,'" because the U.S. had "startlingly low numbers of pilots who could just jump in a plane and go."
Given expected isolationist resistance to the outright training of military pilots, the Civil Pilot Training program focused on training pilots to get civilian licenses — in the beginning, through affiliations with colleges and universities.
The program was originally only going to serve white pilots, but Brooks said advocates such as the NAACP and the labor union for railroad Pullman porters convinced President Franklin D. Roosevelt to allow black pilots to be involved.
At first, only a few black colleges on the East Coast had CPT programs, starting in 1939, but that number expanded to include LU — "the only CPT program serving black pilots west of the Mississippi," Brooks said.
Trainees who completed a CPT program could fly a plane on their own, and later advanced training offered a pathway to getting a commercial pilot's license, though that wasn't offered at LU, Brooks said.
She said a total of at least 50 pilots got trained through the program at LU. The first class was in fall 1940 — 10 students in a class, with classes in the spring, summer and fall.
"Not only were they trained in flight hours, but they also had ground crew, mechanics and that kind of thing," Brooks said.
She has identified several pilots who studied in the LU CPT program and then went on to train at the Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama, which "became the center for the training program of black air personnel" during World War II, according to the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum.
Among the LU CPT program alumni who went on to Tuskegee was Capt. Wendell Pruitt, of St. Louis, a famed fighter pilot who shot down three Nazi planes and who later died in a training accident at Tuskegee in April 1945 after he came back from the war to teach there.
"There were several squadrons of black pilots all trained at Tuskegee, but the 332nd is the Red Tails. He was in that group," Brooks said of Pruitt.
LU's Clarion student newspaper described Pruitt in April 1945 as "regarded by his fellow pilots as the most daring of all aces and as a flier's flier."
Pruitt served with the 332nd Fighter Group in Italy, and he received the air medal with six oak leaf clusters. He also received the distinguished flying cross for extraordinary achievement in aerial combat, and flew 350 hours in combat on 70 missions, Brooks wrote.
She said "one of the really cool things he did was, it was thought that the (fighter) airplanes couldn't take out a destroyer ship. He was one of the two pilots who actually achieved that."
"The white military leadership didn't believe that when they came back and said they had done that, and it was only when their cameras on the planes showed that they did it" that white military leadership came around on their doubts about black pilots' abilities, she said.
"They just thought (black aviators) were going to fail, and they didn't want them on a white base to make them look bad. That was why they originally put them in Tuskegee," Brooks said.
"(Black aviators) grew up wanting to be pilots, too. They loved flying, and it was that golden era of flight, so the fact that that opened up in their lifetime was important," she said.
Richard Pullam, of Kansas City, was a fellow flyer in the 332nd with Pruitt, and Brooks said Pullam escorted his body from Tuskegee back to St. Louis after the crash that killed Pruitt.
"He and Pruitt seemed to be good pals" who had been in the same CPT class — LU's second — and the same class K at Tuskegee.
Pullam stayed in the Army, earned the rank of major and was the commander of the 301st fighter squadron.
"I want to find out more about him. I don't know a lot," Brooks said.
Pruitt, Pullam, Wilbur Long and Everrett Bratcher were all LU CPT graduates at Tuskegee who served overseas.
Long was in LU's first CPT class, was a 2nd lieutenant with the 332nd, was shot down over Poland and was held in the Stalag Luft III Nazi prisoner of war camp.
Bratcher, of Poplar Bluff, was also in LU's first CPT class, and served in a ground crew.
Brooks wrote that 21 LU students, including 10 LU CPT students, trained at Tuskegee in some part, "either flight training or other support elements, such as quartermaster, military police, ground crew or musician," though she added most of the other 40 or so LU CPT students entered the military in some fashion.
"At least another 20 students from (LU) who did not complete the CPT class were involved in aviation support during the war," she added.
In all, America's CPT programs trained 435,165 pilots, but only 2,000 were black and 2,500 were women, she wrote.
In 1940, the U.S. "had only 124 licensed black pilots and only seven with commercial ratings," she added.
Despite their achievements during World War II and the lack of segregation they enjoyed while serving in Europe, Brooks said black pilots often came back home to Jim Crow segregation and a general lack of equal employment opportunities.
"That was a bit of a culture shock for them, to have this achievement, skill and success, and then come back and (face) 'Well, none of that matters. Get back in your place,'" she said.
However, the contributions of black aviators during the war was "a really big step foward when (President Harry) Truman desegregated the military. That was an example of 'everyone expected this to fail, and look how they succeeded,'" Brooks said.
She has other names and more history she's uncovered in researching LU's CPT program.
Brooks said she had not decided if she wants to do something like write a book based on her research, though she could put together a book if there's enough information and interest.
"I haven't really gotten to that point. I just kind of stumbled on to that one phrase, that it was the only program for black pilots west of the Mississippi, and it just kind of piqued my curiosity. And I've just kind of been chasing the information ever since," she said.
"As far as a marker or something, I think it would be good to remember them, (and) the part that Lincoln played as a whole, really, in World War II," she said.