More Culture:

June 03, 2024

Tuskegee Airman with Philly ties appears in new Nat Geo special

Lt. Col. James Harvey, who lived in Philly after retiring from the military, is in 'The Real Red Tails,' narrated by Sheryl Lee Ralph.

History TV
Tuskegee Airmen Provided image/Lydia Thompson/Disney

Lt. Col. James Harvey was drafted into the military shortly after graduating high school in 1943.

When Lt. Col. James Harvey arrived in Tuskegee, Alabama, for flight training in 1943, he had never heard of the base or the Black fighter pilots that graduated from its air field. But the decorated veteran would go on to become one of the most famous members of a special class of World War II servicemen.

The Tuskegee Airmen were the first Black men to fly fighter jets for the Air Force, which began accepting and later drafting Black pilots into the military after President Franklin D. Roosevelt lifted previous bans on their service. They are the focus of "The Real Red Tails," a National Geographic special airing Monday and streaming the following day on Hulu and Disney+. It is narrated by "Abbott Elementary" star Sheryl Lee Ralph.

MORE: Colman Domingo, Oprah to star in Audible adaptation of his play

"Everything we did had to be perfect," Harvey says in the documentary, reflecting on the rampant racism he and other Black veterans faced. "They were trying to take us down the drain, and we said no."

Harvey was only 19 years old when he was drafted into World War II. The high school valedictorian was born in Montclair and had grown up in Luzerne County, spending his formative years well above the Mason-Dixon Line. He says he got his first introduction to the segregated South while on the train to report for duty. After securing breakfast at a stop in Washington, D.C., Harvey tried to reclaim his seat, but a conductor stopped him and directed him to the car "where Negroes ride."  Once Harvey settled on the Tuskegee air field, he never left the base. 

"Nothing interested me downtown," Harvey said. "Plus, the conditions in the South. Why subject myself to that kind of stuff when I don't have to? The sheriff did not care for us.

"A couple men went downtown, and they were warned. If they came back, he told them what would happen to them. So why go into a place like that?"

"The Real Red Tails" delves into these ugly experiences, as well as the slow but steady progress of Black servicemen in America. While the special is largely focused on the mysterious 1944 crash of Tuskegee pilot Frank Moody during a routine training mission, it provides a wider overview of the Tuskegee Airmen, who upon earning their wings, served in the 332nd Fighter Group and 99th Fighter Squadron.

Harvey officially joined the 99th Fighter Squadron in 1944, but his deployment to Europe was delayed as the war drew to a close in 1945. "I would like to have gone, but I wasn't frustrated," he added. 

He stayed in the military, eventually becoming the first Black jet fighter pilot in the Korean airspace after the military was desegregated in 1948. He received a Distinguished Flying Cross and other medals for coming to the rescue of U.S. forces trapped by enemy fire.

"We had a dive bombing mission to hit a target up in North Korea," he recalled. "And on our way back, I got this call saying they had American troops pinned down and needed help, and what if I could help? So I got all the information from them. Lowered, got down below the clouds in the mountains, found the target, and we emptied our guns. Four ships, eight guns per aircraft. ... The muzzle velocity of the bullet did a lot of damage with one bullet.

"So we did what we had to do, pulled up on top of the clouds and continued on back to Japan. About a week later, the commander got a telegram from the commander who was pinned down, and he thanked us for what we did."

After Harvey retired from the military in 1965, he became a salesman for Oscar Mayer in Madison, Wisconsin. He relocated several times over the course of his career, including to Philadelphia for about 18 months. He eventually landed in Denver, a "beautiful" place he had longed to visit and where he still lives today. He celebrated his 100th birthday in July with 400 people at the Wings Over the Rockies Air & Space Museum, receiving a police escort to the bash.

"I'll have to have something for 101," he said, laughing and admitting "it'll probably be scaled down from that one."

Harvey is one of the last surviving Tuskegee Airmen. (One of his remaining peers, Lt. Col. Harry Stewart, also appears in "The Real Red Tails.") While the veteran is glad this class of Black pilots is celebrated today, he bemoans that so few were lauded while they were still alive to appreciate it.

"We were the best fighter pilots the United States had," he said. "We were, we proved it. But it took us 73 years to get recognition. So anyway, we finally got our recognition, but it was just too bad we got it when we did 'cause there's no one around but Harry Stewart and I. All the team is gone."

Two men stand in the middle of an airplane hangar opening.Provided image/Lydia Thompson/Disney

Lt. Col. James Harvey (left) and Lt. Col. Harry Stewart (right) both gave interviews for the National Geographic special.

Follow Kristin & PhillyVoice on Twitter: @kristin_hunt | @thePhillyVoice
Like us on Facebook: PhillyVoice
Have a news tip? Let us know.