‘I’m a survivor’: Former Tuskegee Airman reflects on capture, racial discrimination at home

As an aviator who made the grade with the Tuskegee Airmen, he fought against the Axis Powers during World War II.
Alexander Jefferson is truly among the last living members of America's so-called greatest generation.
Published: Nov. 12, 2021 at 8:43 AM EST
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - Alexander Jefferson is truly among the last living members of America’s so-called greatest generation.

He is a Michigan native, and Detroit-area resident with deep family roots here in the Carolinas.

As an aviator who made the grade with the Tuskegee Airmen, he fought against the Axis Powers during World War II, but the former lieutenant colonel and many other African American troops came home to the U.S., where he faced legal racial discrimination.

While Veteran’s Day celebrations often pay tribute to meaningful contributions made by American servicemen and women, hate and hardships rarely get a mention on this federal holiday.

Jefferson was awarded his wings as a member of the esteemed Tuskegee Airmen three years after the war started.

“I came out in ‘44, relatively in the middle of the whole program. When I came out, the 99th had already gone to north Africa,” Jefferson said.

Founded in 1941 during World War II, 80 years later in 2021, dwindling numbers of these living aviation innovators are a given reality.

Jefferson reflects by saying “I’m a survivor. Play the game. Survive.”

Surviving meant enduring his final mission over Europe, the P-51 Mustang he was flying.

Jefferson’s plane ended up shot down over Tulon, France. He fell into the hands of the Germans and became a prisoner of war.

“If it were not for the Red Cross food parcels, we would have starved to death because the Germans didn’t have any food,” he said.” The only thing they could give us were potatoes.”

Alexander Jefferson returned to a celebration in the New York Harbor six months after being captured when the war ended in 1945.

A different kind of reality set in as he got off the ship.

“Coming back home to racism, segregation and discrimination,” he said.

A standing memorial in Walterboro, South Carolina dedicated during 1997 serves as a reminder of how and when the Lowcountry base was the final stop for the Tuskegee pilots before they headed overseas.

Despite their extensive training and contributions, many of these veterans came home to a country denying them the right to vote, forcing them to the back of the bus, and not allowing the veterans to sit at five-and-dime store lunch counters.

Jefferson still takes pride having experienced government-endorsed prejudice both in and out of uniform.

“There was a love unconsciously. We had a love for this country because we had a feeling that this country was my country and didn’t belong to anybody else,” he said.

A country this coming Monday, Nov. 15, where Alexander Jefferson will celebrate his 100th birthday.

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