Autographs from History
Spc. Jacob Meyers of the 832nd Ordnance Battalion, far right, gets his Spiritual Fitness Training program autographed by original Tuskegee Airman Rev. Henry Baldwin, who flew bomber escorts in Europe during World War II. Baldwin and Vietnam War Tuskegee Airman Aaron Watkins, at left, were the guest speakers at the program Aug. 26.

Describing the Soldiers of the 832nd Ordnance Battalion as "co-workers for democracy," a World War II Tuskegee Airman told the young Soldiers that the U.S. is depending on them to be ready when their country needs them.

Rev. Henry Baldwin, who at age 19 was one of the original Tuskegee Airmen who flew with distinction during World War II as the 332nd Fighter Group, Army Air Corps over Italy, said today's Soldiers now carry the responsibility of service.

With proper training and the discipline of a war fighter, the Soldiers of the 832nd Ordnance Battalion "will be ready to do what there needs to be done," Baldwin said.

Baldwin and Aaron Watkins, a second generation Tuskegee Airman who served during the Vietnam War, spoke to the Soldiers of the 832nd Ordnance Battalion at a Spiritual Fitness Training event Aug. 26 in Bob Jones Auditorium. The Tuskegee Airmen were invited to Redstone Arsenal by Chaplain (Capt.) Marcela Barnett, who has known Baldwin since she was a young girl.

"We've made an unwritten commitment to each other to always carry the torch and make sure we share what He's given to us," Barnett said. "Rev. Baldwin is a longtime family friend who's been blessing the hearts of Soldiers since day one. I know he will bless my Soldiers the way he has blessed me."

Lt. Col. Randle Jackson, commander of the 832nd Ordnance Battalion, told his Soldiers the Tuskegee Airmen are "legends in your midst."

"There are very few Tuskegee Airmen left," he said.

"No matter what obstacle you face, we have veterans who understand the fight and believe in a higher power ... We're glad to have these gentlemen share their experiences with our young warriors. They are battle tested. This is a great opportunity to learn from their experiences."

The 832nd Ordnance Battalion is a training organization with a unique mission, Jackson said.

"Our job is to mold young Soldiers and get them ready for their assignment," he said. "When they deploy and find themselves in harm's way we want to make sure they are a balanced Soldier and a balanced leader.

"That's why we talk about a purpose that is greater than us. We want these Soldiers to stay grounded, to stay rooted and understand there's a higher purpose, a higher calling for all of us. We want them to be grounded and rooted in faith and nation."

Baldwin said he felt honored to be given the opportunity to encourage and motivate young Soldiers. And the Soldiers of the 832nd felt the same way about Baldwin and Watkins.

"What they said motivated me," said Pvt. Paul Harast. "It's just what I needed to make everything fall into place. I joined the Army so I could go to college and be a pilot. I really can't explain how I feel about today. It was a blessing."

"I liked the overall message to keep moving on and not quit even when people tell you 'No,'" added Spc. Jacob Meyers, who was holding an autographed program for the event on which Baldwin wrote "Dream big. Keep your eyes on the prize. The sky is not the limit."

Baldwin told the Soldiers how, as an elementary school boy growing up poor in Philadelphia, he heard a message from President Franklin Roosevelt in which the president said "Do not quit."

"I would ask my parents how I could fly an airplane," he recalled. "I would tell people I was going to fly an airplane someday and they would laugh at me. When they told me I can't do it that made me more determined ... I told my mom and dad 'I'm going to be a pilot.'"

In 1941, Army recruiters came to Baldwin's high school and set up in the auditorium. Baldwin, the only black in the entire auditorium, was told by the vice principal that he couldn't take the initial Army test and that the Army didn't want black recruits.

"I went back to the recruiting officer and he went to the vice principal and said 'Yes, we are taking Negroes and if he passes the test I'll get a promotion and a leave of absence.' I took that test and out of 350 others I had the third highest score. My IQ was 130. No one ever told me that before."

At 17, Baldwin joined the Army and began his pilot training, which took him to what was then referred to as Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Followed were months of strenuous training as the first recruits were winnowed down to the best of the best to make up the first unit of black pilots in military service.

"In the beginning it was tough. The leaders pressured you some," he said. "But that is their way of putting something good in you. Don't think they are always picking on you. They are helping you to mature ... That's how you learn to be in control of yourself. If you are going to fly, you have to be in control of yourself."

Baldwin described his first flight as "heaven to me. 'If only the guys on the corner could see me now,' I thought. I was going to heaven."

Baldwin completed his flight training and graduated as a commissioned officer at age 19. Of the 300 in his class, only 23 graduated. Baldwin went on to fly escorts for bombing missions in Europe.

"We had to escort bombers and we never lost a bomber. Tuskegee Airmen did tricky things that the German pilots had never seen," he said.

But the Tuskegee Airmen did pay a price for their service. In all, 992 pilots were trained in Tuskegee from 1940 to 1946. About 445 deployed overseas and 150 lost their lives in accidents or combat. Tuskegee Airmen were awarded several Silver Stars, 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses, eight Purple Hearts, 14 Bronze Stars and 744 Air Medals.

Baldwin urged the Soldiers in his audience to work hard, learn from others, help people, work together, depend on each other, remember all their training and pull up those who are not as well educated and trained.

"You don't really know how many people look up to you now," he said. "What you are doing right now, it lays the foundation for what you are going to do and you don't know which way it's going to take you.

"You're on your way to something that will make this country better, and you don't know how your teaching will connect to your future ... You are getting the best education in the world because it can take you in so many directions and help you learn so many things. In the Army, you are learning how to control yourself for a purpose."

Baldwin, 82, has been married for 62 years. He has seven children, six grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.

"The Tuskegee Airmen made my life," he said. "I've done many things and I have been blessed. I'm proud of being a Tuskegee Airman."

In closing, Jackson told his Soldiers that Baldwin and Watkins are examples of Soldiers who found opportunities and overcame challenges to make their dream of service come true.

"Our lives are filled with possibilities," Jackson said. "We have to capture every opportunity. We have to prepare for our futures today."

Legacy Based on Faith, Dreams and Determination--Aca,!EoeDream Big,Aca,!a,,c Veteran Says

Faith, big dreams, determination and discipline are the elements of success for a Soldier.

Aaron Watkins, a second generation Tuskegee Airman who flew Chinook helicopters in the Vietnam War, urged the Soldiers of the 832nd Ordnance Battalion during their Aug. 26 Spiritual Fitness Training event to have a strong faith in God.

Aca,!A"The spirit of the truth will take you a long way. Enjoy the journey, enjoy it because you never know where life will take you,Aca,!A? he said.

He told the Soldiers to Aca,!A"dream big.Aca,!A?

Aca,!A"Tuskegee Airmen had three things Aca,!" a dream, a big dream; determination and discipline,Aca,!A? Watkins said.

Those principles were embodied in the Tuskegee AirmenAca,!a,,cs first commander, Capt. Benjamin Davis Jr., one of the first black West Point graduates.

Aca,!A"No one spoke to him for four years at West Point. He stayed in a room without a roommate,Aca,!A? he said. Aca,!A"There were over 250 in his class and he graduated number 37.

Aca,!A"Capt. Davis was able to instill in them (the Tuskegee Airmen) the discipline they needed where they didnAca,!a,,ct lose a single bomber (over Italy) to the enemy fight.Aca,!A?

Watkins, himself, had to exhibit a bit of determination of his own during tests to qualify for pilot school. During his first physical, he was told his left eye was less than perfect vision. He returned two weeks later and was told the same eye had better than perfect vision.

Aca,!A"I was able to fly a Chinook. I was in the first group of black aviators to fly the Chinook,Aca,!A? he said. Aca,!A"I have over 1,000 hours of combat time flying a Chinook in Vietnam. It was very rewarding, very gratifying.Aca,!A?

After Vietnam, his military career went on to include a position as company commander of a data processing unit in Germany and as a liaison officer for the West Point Academy. He then enjoyed a 28-year career with General Motors.

Watkins happened to meet his friend, original Tuskegee Airman Rev. Henry Baldwin, years ago in a Bible study class. The two travel together frequently to talk to groups about the legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen.

Aca,!A"The Tuskegee Airmen leave a great foundation and history,Aca,!A? Watkins said. Aca,!A"The average age of the original Tuskegee Airman is 83 years old. We want to keep their legacy alive, and we try to do that by sharing their story of big dreams, determination and discipline.Aca,!A?

Page last updated Fri September 5th, 2008 at 18:25