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Thu, Jan 26, 2012

Red Tails Story Not Just About Men

Mildred Hemmons Carter Turned Down For WASP Due To Race

The opening of the movie "Red Tails" last week has brought the story of the Tuskegee Airmen to the attention of many who had never heard it before, and prompted a renewed awareness of that time in history. But as much as the valiant service of the Red Tails broke through barriers for American men of African descent, barriers to women in aviation, especially black women, would persist.

CNN tells the story of Herbert Carter and Mildred Hemmons (photo: YouTube/lefrazier), who might have been dating had it not been for WWII. In 1942, he was training to fly at Tuskegee University, then known as Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute. She was Alabama's first black woman to earn a pilot certificate. They'd rendezvous on weekends, but not for dating. They'd meet in mid-air, her in a J-3, he in an AT-6 trainer.

Herbert earned the rank of second lieutenant, married Mildred, and went on to fly 77 combat missions during the war, part of what turned out to be a 27-year career in the Air Force. But for Mildred, social progress moved much more slowly. Like all women, she was turned down for a role as a combat pilot, hired instead as a civilian to bulldoze trees for a runway at Tuskegee. But she was also rebuffed in her attempt to join the Women Airforce Service Pilots, receiving the reply, "The US government does not have plans at this time to include colored female pilots in the WASP."

Mildred never did fly for the military, but remained a civilian pilot until her mid-60s, and CNN reports she went on to mentor female African-American pilots. Last February, in what had to be a bittersweet moment, she got another letter from the US government, but this one informing her that she'd been declared a member of the WASPs. There was also a medal with the inscription: "The First Women in History to Fly America."

Herbert and Mildred were excited to be involved in consulting on the creation of "Red Tails." But Mildred didn't get to see it. She passed away last October at the age of 90, after making Herbert, now 94, promise to live to be 100. He says, "I don't intend to let her down."



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