Flight Chief of Flight A in the 617th Bomb Squadron
A special note of thanks to Jacqueline Covington and Diane Hamm for submitting this piece! Jacqueline is a dedicated CAF member and Red Tail Squadron volunteer. Both Jacqueline and Diane are members of the Greater Cincinnati Chapter of Tuskegee Airmen, Inc. (GCCTAI). June 22, 2015
“Our ‘excellence’ is proof that those who believed in Black inferiority were fools.”
~ Leslie Edwards
When you first meet Mr. Leslie Edwards, an original Tuskegee Airman, you notice his gentle smile and piercing eyes. One would never know his important role in writing the history of WWII, or rather his re-writing of history!
SSgt/Flight Chief Leslie Edwards, Sr., a resident of Cincinnati, Ohio, will be 91 years of age this August. He is very alert and extremely mobile physically. He devotes his retirement days to speaking at schools, civic clubs and churches about the role of Tuskegee Airmen during WWII.
There were many others, not just fighter pilots, Edwards says in his public appearances. Among them bombardiers, mechanics, instructors, navigators, crew chiefs, nurses, cooks. The term “documented original Tuskegee Airmen” applies to vetted Army Air Corps personnel who trained or were stationed at the racially segregated Tuskegee Army Airfield in Alabama from 1941 through 1949.
Edwards was promoted several times, ultimately to flight chief of Flight A in the 617th Bomb Squadron. He was responsible for the flight readiness of B-25 medium bombers. The 617th was one of four that made up the 477th Bombardment Group. His unit had prepared to go overseas when the Japanese surrendered in August 1945.
He is a wealth of information while remaining humble and gentle, especially when history is misrepresented and the facts are quite different than what has been shared with the general public. Edwards reports the history as he lived it. For example, it was reported that in Tuskegee, AL, black airmen were given the worst parts and planes because they were not expected to be deployed, but when they were sent to Africa, however, they received new airplanes. Also, the Tuskegee Airmen were educated by Col Phillip Cochran about the German Fighters and how to survive in combat.
Below is a brief summary of some of his key personal experiences at major Army Air Fields and with major leaders involved in the Tuskegee Experience during his time of service.
General Daniel ‘Chappie’ James, Jr. – After graduating from Tuskegee University, James completed the government’s Civilian Pilot Training Program and he became a civilian instructor for the Tuskegee Army Air Corps where he trained pilots for the all-black 99th Pursuit Squadron. It was there James and Edwards teamed up to check out factory-delivered airplanes for safety issues and military acceptance. Col James, known as ‘Blackman’, and Col Robin Olds, known as ‘Robin’, of the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing (TFW), were a legendry team in Viet Nam that had the highest number of MIG-21 kills. On September 1, 1975, Col James became the first African American to be promoted to a Four Star General. After that appointment, he had dual responsibilities for operational command of all U.S. and Canadian strategic aerospace defense forces.
Brigadier General Noel F. Parrish – Parrish was promoted to the position of Tuskegee Army Air Field Commander in 1942 until the end of WWII. Gen Parrish made it obvious to a young Edwards that he believed blacks could perform well in both leadership and combat roles. Parrish wrote a thesis advocating desegregation that influenced President Harry S. Truman in his decision to desegregate the US military.
Sheppard Air Force Base, TX – The base received its first class of 22 Army Air Corps aviation mechanics in October 1941. Edwards was in the graduating class of February 1942.
Selfridge Air National Guard Base, MI –In January 1944, Selfridge housed the 477th Bombardment Group, training to fly North American B-25 Mitchell bombers. In May 1944, following a reprimand of the Commander and his demotion to Captain for segregating blacks, Edwards and other personnel of the 477th were transferred to Godman Field, KY.
Godman Army Airfield, KY – While the 477th Bombardment Group trained for B-25 combat orders, Edwards was promoted to SSgt/Flight Chief. It was here that he was handpicked by Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. as part of the team going to Myrtle Beach, SC. Because of their excellent safety record of keeping planes mission-ready, they were assigned the task of preparing planes for night flight operations and for flying over oceans.
Freeman Army Airfield, IN – The Freeman Field Mutiny occurred on April 5 and 6, 1945. The 477th already suffered from morale problems stemming from strict social segregation of black and white officers at Selfridge Field. Col Robert Selway created two separate officer clubs, essentially to segregate the black and white officers. Over a two-day period, small groups of black officers attempted to enter the white officers club multiple times and were met with resistance and arrests. Edwards was a witness to this incident. Afterwards, the entire 477th Bombardment Group was returned to Godman Field.
General Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. – Davis received orders to take over command of Godman Field and the all-black 477th Bombardment Group, which included Edwards, from Col Selway in July 1945 and they were to be prepared for combat. However, WWII ended before they could be deployed. Davis moved the 477th to Lockbourne Army Air Base in Ohio where they became known as the 332nd Fighter Wing.
Lockbourne Army Air Base, OH – Davis not only commanded their flying unit, but also served as Base Commander. On December 9, 1998, President Bill Clinton advanced Lt General Davis to a ‘FULL’ General awarding him Four Stars.
In a WWII magazine, the question was asked, “Who will keep history alive when our WWII veterans are all gone?” Edwards, a fine, unassuming man, still works very hard to keep history correct and alive and volunteers much of his time to answer this question. If we are lucky, Edwards, our unsung hero, will be able to continue on in this valuable role educating youth, civic groups and the general public so that they may carry forward this very important part of American history, and there are many chapters of Tuskegee Airmen, Inc. all over the United States that labor diligently to carry out these goals alongside these heroes.
The CAF Red Tail Squadron is a volunteer-driven organization dedicated to educating audiences across the country about the history and legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen, America’s first black military pilots and their support personnel. Learn more at www.redtail.org.