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EXIT 57 I-95s: to Walterboro, SC
Beyond the woods off to your right is a sleepy little airfield. But once it was a birthplace of heroes.
Walterboro Army Airfield’s contribution to the World War Two war effort started with 7 of the famed Doolittle Raiders who were trained here. They then joined Bomber groups in the Pacific. A few years later it hosted one of the most decorated fighter squadrons in air combat history. That squadron was none other than the Tuskegee Airmen.
Shortly after Pearl Harbor and after losing island after island including all the Philippines, in need of a nationwide morale lift, Colonel Jimmy Doolittle and his bombers perilously lumbered off aircraft carriers on a one-way raid over Tokyo.
While the raid was not large, it showed the Japanese military that America could strike at the heart of Japan -- even if it meant ditching the planes over enemy territory. In fact, many of the raiders were captured or killed. Nevertheless, it raised morale and presaged the American's first pivotal victory at the Battle of Midway.
About another fighting group based in Walterboro: though named for their origins at Alabama’s Tuskegee Airfield, the pilots of the famed 332nd Fighter Group actually completed final training at Walterboro Airfield. The Tuskegee Airmen were an entirely African American squadron.
In a state where all too often African American history is studied in the context of slavery, a refreshing change is the tale of the Tuskegee Airmen. They were one of the most-lauded American military units of World War Two. The military was segregated during World War Two, with African Americans mostly relegated to support roles. An exception was the case of the 332nd. They were formed in 1941 as the 99th Pursuit Squadron by an act of Congress and the only all-black flying unit in the American military at the time. Due to doubts and bigotry they were trained and re-trained far beyond the usual term.
Then finally, with much white trepidation, they were assigned. They flew from Airfields in Southern Europe.
For the most part flying P-47 Thunderbolts and P-51 Mustangs, the pilots of the 332nd had one of the toughest missions of the war: escorting bombers over the skies of Germany and protecting them from seasoned Luftwaffe fighters. Though initially viewed with skepticism, the Tuskegee Airmen wasted no time in proving their mettle. In fact, it wasn’t long before American bomber crews who were, needless to say, all white, specifically requested that they be escorted by the Tuskegee Airmen.
The mere sight of the super competent escort fighters no doubt gave rise to their nickname, the “Red-Tail Angels” because of the distinctive markings of their aircraft. The 332nd’s reputation for aggressiveness in air combat was widely-known.
The Germans also had a nickname for them — Schwartze Vogelmenschen, or “Black Bird Men.”
Today Walterboro honors the Tuskegee Airmen with a monument on the grounds of the Lowcountry Regional Airport, on U.S. 17 just northeast of town. In an easily accessible part of the airport grounds, the monument features a bronze statue and several interpretive exhibits. Another place to catch up on Tuskegee Airmen history is at the Colleton Museum which has a permanent exhibit on the pilots and their history in the Walterboro area.
Why not take the next EXIT and visit with the ghosts of some real American Heroes?
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