FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) — The pervasive racism of the time became a strange blessing for retired Capt. Claude R. Platte, a flight instructor who trained dozens of Tuskegee Airmen during and after World War II.
Platte, a civilian, had the job of training the young pilots who would become the Tuskegee Airmen. When World War II ended, the Army sent him to flight school.
Platte aced the flight school exam and was sent to Randolph Air Field in San Antonio. When he arrived, the officers believed he was there to wash dishes, said Al Henderson, vice president of the Claude R. Platte DFW chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen.
“None of the pilots who came back after the war could get a job in aviation,” Henderson told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “You had all these alpha males who were the best of the best and none of them could get a job” because of their race.
Platte became one of the first African-American officers to be trained and commissioned in the Air Force pilot training program, according to the Defense Department.
His story, along with the history of the Tuskegee Airmen, is depicted in a traveling exhibit at the Lenora Rolla Heritage Center Museum that runs through November.
The exhibit, called The Test, speaks to the political and aerial battles the first all-black air wing endured during and after the war. When asked about The Test and what it means to him, Platte, 92, straightened and smiled a little at the irony of the question.
“We passed,” he said.
Constant and consistent training and the disciplinary measures employed by legendary Gen. Benjamin O. Davis Jr. played a part in that, but racism – meant to harm the squad – gave the Tuskegee Airmen an unintended edge.
“They couldn’t get an assignment,” Henderson said. “Usually, fighter pilots had six weeks’ training and then they would send them out to battle.”But the Tuskegee Airmen trained weeks longer than the average fighter pilot because no one would fly with them, Henderson said.
“When they finally got an assignment they performed flawlessly,” Henderson said. The skies were Platte’s natural habitat. When he was 7, an airplane flew so low over his Fort Worth home that he could see a man inside.
His father explained he had seen a pilot. Platte vowed to become a pilot when he grew up. “His father told him that he could not because he was black,” said Emma Platte, Claude Platte’s wife.
But Platte never forgot the man in the cockpit, his wife said. Months later, he packed a lunch and walked the 17 miles from his house to Meacham Airport to watch the airplanes land. He dreamed about the sky.
“They always pointed me out like I was from another universe,” Platte said. “I was a pilot and people had a hard time adjusting to that. I guess they always expected me to be white. But I spent most of my time showing off and doing the acrobatics that they could not do.”
•Picture above Benjamin Davis Jr.