By ALEXA MILAN
GOLDSTON — When Goldston resident William Hicks Sr. looks at his model of a P-51 airplane, a small silver figure with a bright red tail wing, it’s as if he’s transported back to 1944.
He remembers everything about the mechanics of it — the inner workings of the engine, the way the oil stained the motor, the small camera mounted on the wing. He affectionately refers to the P-51 as “the baby,” much preferred over “the junker” that was the previously-used P-40.
Back then, it was his responsibility to ensure the planes operated properly. As one of the Tuskegee Airmen, keeping the Red Tails flying was a crucial task.
Hicks, 91, served as an electrical specialist in the ground crew as part of the Tuskegee Airmen’s 332nd Fighter Group, cementing his place in history as one of the United States’ first black aviators.
“The Tuskegee Airmen were more than just a group of young black men,” Hicks said. “It was a purpose, and it was a belief.”
Formerly of Pittsburgh, Hicks relocated to Goldston last summer to be closer to his family.
He joined the military in 1942 at age 20, determined to serve a segregated country where the majority didn’t view him as a hero. He recalls an encounter with a farmer who said, “Oh, now they have monkeys flying airplanes.” Some addressed Hicks and the men in his unit in derogatory terms rather than by their military titles.
“I love America,” Hicks said. “America did not mistreat us. Some of her people did that. I think of America as a place where you can be whatever your abilities allow you to become. If we had allowed those injustices to dwell with us, we could never have done the job.”
Hicks completed basic training in California before studying engineering in Nebraska and Illinois, where he learned airplane mechanics. At the conclusion of his training, he was transferred to Selfridge Field, Mich.
To become a Tuskegee Airman, Hicks said aviators had to have a high school diploma, good character, and proven ability. The group’s name refers to Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute, where the program officially launched in 1941.
“The black community became kind of fed up with what was going on,” Hicks said. “Young men couldn’t get into the Air Force because of segregation, young men who were smart and loyal.”
By early 1944, Hicks and his unit were ready for combat. They traveled via cargo ship out of Virginia on Jan. 4, 1944, and docked in Naples, Italy, on Feb. 4. Hicks remembers vividly sleeping on canvass that was stretched across the ship’s pipes.
Upon their arrival in Italy, Hicks and his unit witnessed an American Red Cross ship capsize in front of them. The danger of enemy bombs was something Hicks was exposed to quickly.
“They would send bombers over every night and about 9:30 or 10 p.m., and they would drop their bombs,” Hicks said. “They would send them back the next morning, maybe at 4:30 or 5 a.m., and drop them again. They figured if they could kill the ground crew, then you’d defeat your opponent. Because when the ground crew cannot work, there’s no one to fix the airplanes.”
Hicks saw his fair share of war time struggles he said he would rather forget — A group of young boys standing around a trash can, begging him and the other aviators for food when they left the mess hall. Another young man attempting to solicit for his mother, a prostitute, to the passing soldiers in hopes of earning money for food.
But Hicks and his fellow Tuskegee Airmen also achieved a multitude of accomplishments, setting numerous combat records and proving their worth as a critical piece of the U.S. military. The squadron’s primary objective, Hicks said, was to escort bombers on their missions in Europe.
Under the command of Col. Benjamin O. Davis Jr. (who would later become the Air Force’s first black general), Hicks said the 332nd Fighter Group flew more than 200 missions, and destroyed more than 400 German airplanes and 950 freight cars carrying supplies and ammunition to the front lines.
“Two of our planes sank a destroyer with machine gun fire only from two airplanes,” Hicks said. “That had never been done before, and I don’t think it has been done since.”
By the end of the war, Hicks had attained the rank of staff sergeant. After the war, he decided to pursue engineering opportunities outside of the military. He graduated from the American Television Institute in Chicago and dedicated much of his post-war career to television and radio repair.
Through his experiences with the Tuskegee Airmen and beyond, Hicks said faith in himself and faith in God guided him.
“When you say you have faith in yourself, you really have faith in God,” Hicks said. “That’s where faith comes from.”
Though racism was still prevalent upon the Tuskegee Airmen’s return to the United States, the group’s success in the war proved critics wrong. Over time, the aviators known as the Red Tails would be hailed as national heroes.
In 2009, President Barack Obama invited Hicks and the other Tuskegee Airmen to attend his inauguration in Washington, D.C. Hollywood has captured their story onscreen in several movies, including HBO’s “The Tuskegee Airmen” starring Laurence Fishburne and the recently-released “Red Tails” produced by George Lucas.
Though he wishes it had happened sooner, Hicks said he feels people today finally appreciate the Tuskegee Airmen’s legacy.
“We could not afford to fail,” Hicks said. “Failure would have been a tremendous setback with black aviation. When you have a purpose, failure is not an option.”