When Dr. Cyril Byron Sr. sat down with his mother in their Bronx apartment in the midst of World War II and told her that he was going to be in a groundbreaking program for black pilots in the Army, she told him that if he was meant to fly, God would have given him wings.
But wings he did sprout, flying with the ‘Red Tails’ – the U.S. Army Air Force 99th Fighter Squadron (also listed as the Tuskegee Airmen) – during the height of World War II.
Byron was the keynote speaker at a celebration on Monday at Bunker Hill Community College Chelsea Campus for Black History Month. The discussion, titled ‘In the Line of Duty: Reflections of legendary hero and member of the Tuskegee Airmen,’ was well attended and engaging for all.
Byron told the crowd he was actually drafted during his second year of college at Morgan State University, and had no choice in the matter. However, he seized the opportunity to become a pilot in the all-black flying squadron.
From the outset, at the training camp in Tuskegee, Alabama, Byron said he and the others realized they were in for quite a fight – not only fighting the enemy, but also fighting the blatant racism in the Deep South of the 1940s.
“When we arrived they had forgotten to put the canvas sides down and all the cots were soaking wet because it had rained for three days before we arrived,” he said. “We realized what had happened and we decided we had to fight this. We slept on those wet mattresses for one day and it was tough.”
Byron said that during training, the black soldiers could not go into the town to see a movie or to shop without an escort. Even then, they were not really welcome, and as he watched a movie one night, Byron said it dawned on him that he was going overseas to risk his life for a freedom he didn’t fully enjoy.
“We had to all go into town on a truck and one guy would have to get all the movie tickets because they wouldn’t let us wait in the line,” he said. “We would get off the truck together and go in and sit in the balcony. I thought, ‘Here I am sitting in uniform getting ready to go off and fight somewhere and they’ve got me sitting in the balcony.’ We couldn’t even walk down the sidewalk because if a white couple came along you were expected to go into the street as they passed. You had to do it. It was tough.”
After training, Byron said his squadron got dispatched to Casablanca where their pilots escorted the British Army through North Africa. They were the only American soldiers in the area at the time. The same was true when they were dispatched to Sicily for the Invasion of Salerno.
He said most of the foreign people found it hard to understand why black American pilots were dispatched to areas where there were no other American forces. Many, he said, were confused and found it odd.
That was not the only odd thing that occurred.
“We used to go to a USO at Naples frequently and every time we came out, the little Italian boys would be running around beside us and circling us and laughing,” he said. “We couldn’t figure it out. One time, a police officer chased them away and scolded them. We asked him what was going on. He told us the kids were told all black soldiers had tails. They were running behind us all the time to look for our tails.”
However, it was a conversation with an Italian man that put Byron’s American existence in perspective.
“The Italian men would always ask us why we were even there fighting for freedom when we didn’t even have freedom at home,” he said. “We all realized then that we were fighting two wars – one overseas and one at home. We continued because we knew it would change. It has changed. It’s not over yet, but it has changed.”
Interim Dean Dr. Vanessa Shannon told the audience in closing remarks that the school chose Byron because he was a history maker.
“We chose him because we wanted to make sure that when we were talking about black history, we were talking with people who made black history,” she said.