Felicia Bowen of Columbus holds a photograph of her grandfather and Tuskegee Airman, Lt. Col. Alva N. Temple. Photo by: Kelly Tippett
January 28, 2012 11:50:00 PM
He grew up exploring the fields of Carrollton, Ala., lying in the high, sun-warmed grass and staring at contrails in the sky, dreaming of being a pilot.There was no reason to believe his boyhood fantasies would come true. And yet, they did. Lt. Col. Alva N. Temple became a hero among heroes -- an esteemed Tuskegee Airman -- flying more than 120 missions over Europe during World War II.
To Columbus resident Felicia Bowen, Temple was simply her grandfather. The man who raised her from babyhood, earning the endearment of "Daddy." The man who loved playing checkers with his friends and still woke up at the crack of dawn every day to do calisthenics, a military holdover that baffled her.
He never spoke much about his life as an airman, not to her anyway. She knew of the famous squadron's aviation prowess and its role in helping break the barriers of racial discrimination within the U.S. military. But for the most part, Temple kept his accomplishments -- and his travails -- to himself.
Bowen doesn't know what to expect of the new George Lucas film, "Red Tails," which was inspired by the Tuskegee Airmen and opened in theaters last week. She knows her grandfather won't be mentioned by name, and she knows some poetic license will probably be taken with the story. She wants to see the movie anyway.
She plans to take her daughter, 9-year-old Kamryn Bowen. When the final credits roll, she hopes the movie's message is driven home.
"These guys put up with a lot," Bowen said. "They had to take a lot to get where they are now."
As the first black aviators in the armed forces, Temple and his fellow pilots found themselves navigating an entirely new terrain.
"It was a segregated military, and the sentiment of the day was that black folk could cook and dance and sing but not fly an airplane," said Jim Dunbar, president of the Alva N. Temple Chapter of Tuskegee Airmen Inc.
The Tuskegee Airmen changed all that.
From farm to flight
Education was always important to Temple. He studied agriculture at Alabama A&M University in Huntsville, Ala., from 1938 to 1940 and made good grades.
But he never forgot his dream of flying, Dunbar said. He never forgot the way those white contrails streaked across the clear blue sky. They fascinated him. He was committed to being a farmer, but he still dreamed of being a pilot.
In 1941, he got his chance. He learned of an Army Air Corps training program in Tuskegee, Ala., where young black men were learning to fly and maintain military aircraft in what was being called "The Tuskegee Experiment."
Before 1940, a black man would have never been allowed to sit in the cockpit of a military plane. A few years later, they were contributing to the war effort by flying escort for American bombers. But the U.S. military remained segregated until 1948, following an executive order by President Harry S. Truman.
"They demanded to be allowed to defend this country," Dunbar said. "These guys wanted to be a part of what was going on even though they were, in essence, second-class citizens. But this was their country."
They were skilled and they were passionate, and they earned a reputation for excellence.
"These guys were so into what they were doing that they could not accept being less than the best," Dunbar said. "That was not in their vernacular."
They were a select group, and entry requirements were notoriously difficult. Of 2,483 pilot trainees who went through the program from 1941 to 1946, only 996 became pilots. Less than half saw action overseas.
Their accomplishments continue to inspire new generations of student pilots.
In the Operations Group building at Columbus Air Force Base, cadets attend classes and flight simulator training. Every day, they walk past a display dedicated to the legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen -- 11 of whom were from Mississippi. A proclamation hangs on the wall declaring March 5 Tuskegee Airmen Day in Lowndes County.
"It's a great tribute to those aviators," said Rick "Sonic" Johnson, chief of public affairs. "They were fighting a lot of demons back in the day -- and Germans. These were truly men of courage and character."
Temple served in Italy, France and the Balkans before coming back to the U.S. and settling in Columbus.
He retired as a lieutenant colonel in 1965, built a house on Highway 69 and opened a gas station next door, which he operated until his death in 2004 at age 86.
Though he didn't talk about his exploits, somehow people always seemed to find out, and many of those people found their way to Mississippi from far-flung states, excited to meet the man Dunbar calls his mentor and "a true hero."
He was known for his altruism, Dunbar said, and there were many good deeds his family didn't learn until long after his death. He spent his life trying to uplift the lives of others.
Shortly before he died, he whispered words so softly that Dunbar had to lean close so he could hear his longtime mentor.
"Don't let them forget it's about the children," Temple said.
Today, Bowen carries on her grandfather's legacy. She answers questions when asked, but she doesn't boast of her connection to a man who played such a role in history. The children, also, are utmost on her mind.
She hopes when her daughter watches "Red Tails," she'll walk away with an understanding of what it means to love something so much that you refuse to give up. She hopes she'll walk away with a conviction to never quit. And she hopes she'll walk away realizing that no matter what she wants to become, the sky is indeed the limit.
"Red Tails" is playing at the Malco Columbus Cinema 8 and in Starkville at Hollywood Premier Cinemas.
Carmen K. Sisson is the former news editor at The Dispatch.
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