Perhaps you might recognize this familiar photo. A young aviator ready to serve his country in the air during the perilous times of World War II. His steadfast resolve, bravery and determination one of the thousand words this picture is worth.
It is quite possibly the most iconic image representative of the Tuskegee Airmen. Since the 1990s it has been “their face” in everything from recruiting posters for the Air Force, to advertisements, to book reports compiled by curious students all over the country.
Behind this famous photo of original Tuskegee Airman Howard Adolphus Wooten is an inspirational story and, sadly, tragedy. Information on his life is not readily available, so with some intent research and the desire to honor his legacy, we’ve taken a deeper dive to learn more about the man who has inspired generations in this well-known photo.
Wooten was born in the small town of Lovelady, Texas in 1920, a time and place deeply steeped in Jim Crow laws and generational racism. His father, his namesake, and mother, Johnnie, were college educated teachers at segregated schools. His father helped establish and serve as principal at the Center Grove School in their town. He had served in World War I before graduating from Prairie View College (now Prairie View A&M University), and became a rancher as well.
Young Wooten was raised on his family’s 1,000-acre cattle farm. His mother passed away when he was only seven years old. His father remarried, then after his second wife passed away, married once again. In all, Wooten had 11 siblings.
At the age of 17, Wooten earned a football scholarship to his father’s alma mater, Prairie View College. But he had dreams to fly. Dreams for a young black man of that era seemed impossible to fulfill. Conversely, his father wanted him to shift his focus away from aviation so he would finish his education and stay away from the inherent dangers of flying.
In 1940, with the United States preparing for the inevitability of yet another World War, Wooten enlisted in the Army. He served four years in a field artillery unit, working his way up the ranks. By January 1942, he had been named Staff Sergeant of the 46th Field Artillery Brigade.
But his desire to fly could not be contained. In 1944 he applied for the flight program at Tuskegee, graduating December of that year from basic and advanced flying school and assigned to the 332nd Fighter Group.
Shortly after, he was reassigned to the 477th Bombardment Group to train to fly the B-25 Mitchell bomber. As with the Tuskegee Airmen training to be bomber pilots, navigators and bombardiers, the war ended before the group could be deployed to the Pacific to fight.
After he separated from military service, Wooten had aspirations of becoming an attorney, and getting far away from the racial tension and lack of equality in the segregated south. Along with five of his siblings, he relocated to the Pacific Northwest, settling in Seattle and finding work with a machinist union at Boeing.
It was there he was set up with Josephine Stratman, a college student working at Boeing during the summer to fund her schooling. He courted her that summer of 1946, and after she graduated the following spring, they were engaged then married.
Both ambitious and determined to continue their education, they set in motion a plan for Wooten to continue his work at Boeing while his young wife completed a master’s degree. Then he would go on to law school after she was finished. But life had other plans and in the spring of 1948 their son Andre Stratman Wooten was born, at the same time Josephine was accepted into the University of Washington’s graduate school. And the young family pressed on.
When Andre was only six months old, the union at Boeing went on strike, and in order to support his family and their aspirations, he took a dangerous job with a painting crew working on a very large viaduct in Seattle. Tragically, Wooten was killed in an accidental fall. He was 28.
His face, gracing countless websites, book pages and posters, is synonymous with the Tuskegee Airmen. But not just for his aviator goggles and flight jacket. Howard Wooten knew the power of his dreams. Like his fellow Tuskegee Airmen, he was not afraid of the hard work it would take to triumph over adversity. He persevered in the face of racism, served our country and believed in a better life for his family. His short life serves as a reminder of how precious time is, and to never quit.
We salute you, and thank you for your service.
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.