Tuskegee Airman recalls career

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Bill Marchese

Rusty Burns of Sun City holds a painting created by artist Stan Stokes showing him and some of his classmates of Tuskegee’s 99th Fighter Squadron. Burns is second from the right.
Photo by Bill Marchese

When Rusty Burns, 90, of Sun City Palm Desert, became a Tuskegee Airman as a youth during World War II, it was a defining moment in his life, something that would later open doors for him in the business world, something he would talk about for years at public lectures, something that would change his life forever.

The Tuskegee Airmen, a group of African-American pilots in an all-black US Army Air Force squadron, fought (and many died) in more than 1,500 missions, many in aerial dogfights or while escorting heavy bomber planes.

It was a segregated unit with a total of 992 pilots originally who earned an impressive wartime track record. Burns, one of the youngest, estimates that there are about 35 still alive today. Their support personnel included about 10,000 navigators, bombardiers, mechanics, instructors, crew chiefs, nurses, cooks and others.

Facing racism

At the Tuskegee, Alabama, air base everyone was black except the base commander and officers, who were white. “We were not allowed to fly into white military air fields, and we could not interact with white pilots,” said Burns.

The city of Tuskegee was so racist in the 1940s that the airmen were not ever allowed to leave the base. “It was too dangerous in the town,” Burns said.

 If you have not lived through racism from Burns’ perspective, it’s hard to imagine segregation and bigotry to such an extreme.

Dating back to 1925, the U.S. Army had a written policy that stated: “Negros lacked the intelligence, courage and manual skills to pilot combat airplanes,” said Burns.

Support for the budding flight program in Tuskegee came from high places when First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt inspected the air base in March 1941. She flew in a Piper J3 Cub with the African-American instructor who was responsible for training thousands of rookie pilots. After her half-hour flight, she cheerfully announced, “Well, you can fly all right.”

“The Tuskegee Airmen were instrumental in the desegregation of the armed services…and the beginning of the civil rights movement,” Burns said. “The black airmen excelled in everything they did, and President Truman was able to integrate the service because of what we accomplished.”

The airmen earned respect and fought racism due to their stellar combat record: No bomber plane escorted by the Tuskegee Airmen was lost to enemy fire, according to U.S. Army data. Bomber crews often requested the Tuskegee Airmen in their fighter planes to escort them in combat.

 “Things changed for the better over the years,” Burns said. “But with Obama in the White House, old racism is coming back. It’s subtle, but it’s back.

“I’m talking about injustices and inequality, black men killed by police or jailed for trumped up charges. It’s part of the culture. It’s like some bigots said, ‘A black man is President, so where did we slip up?’”

Early years

Born in 1925 in New Orleans, Burns developed an early fascination with flying, even though there were very few planes for him to see at the time. The New Orleans airport, on the other side of Lake Ponchatrain, was a long way from his house. He recalls seeing a “biplane, an occasional dirigible and an occasional Ryan ST.”

He fashioned crude model airplanes from wooden orange crates.

Black pilots were almost non-existent at the time, he said. There were a few black sports figures in his youth, like professional boxer Joe Louis and Jessie Owens, who won four gold medals in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Germany.

“Teachers in school were my real heroes,” he recalled.

His mother moved from New Orleans to Los Angles in 1939, then a single mom with five children. He attended Jordon High School in Watts.

In 1942, “Mr. Cosgrove, a white man, was my aeronautics teacher in 12th grade. He told us that flight training for blacks — or whatever they were calling us then — had opened up, and we could take a test in the federal building downtown.”

He jumped at the chance and passed the test. “If was not for Mr. Cosgrove, I would not have known.”

Military career

Although the war was raging in Europe, Burns was too young to join until 1943, when he enlisted at age 18 into the U.S. Army Air Corps at Fort MacArthur. He was sent to Kessler Field in Biloxi, Mississippi, and became a pre-aviation cadet.

He continued aviation training at Tuskegee Institute and graduated second lieutenant in Dec. 28, 1944 as a single-engine fighter pilot, training on the P 40 and P 47. He joined the 99th Fighter Squadron at Godman’s Field in Kentucky in July of 1945 just as the war was ending in Europe. The war ended in the Pacific before he could go. Burns did not see combat service oversees.

After Tuskegee

Burns could not get a job after the war as a pilot with commercial airlines, “which is what most Tuskegee airman wanted to do.” He recalled one airman named Charlie Hall, the first black pilot to shoot down an enemy aircraft, “could not get recognition or a job after the war. He drank himself to death.”

He worked as a clerk with the U.S. Post Office in Los Angeles after the war, but his heart was still in the sky. Burns opened “Rusty’s Flying Service,” giving pilot instruction and other services at Compton Airport, one of the few Tuskegee airmen to return to an aviation career. He ran the successful business for 20 years. He also became a corporate pilot and consultant for Teledyne, Rockwell, North American Airlines and other corporations.

“I have had breaks in my life because of my experiences, some directly from my Tuskegee Airman experience. A lot of doors opened for me with corporations like Rockwell and Teledyne. I met people in high places who had been pilots and when they moved up in the corporate world they took me with them.”

Life in Sun City

Burns, whose memory is razor sharp, recalls exactly when he quit flying: He sold his twin engine Cessna at 3 p.m. on June 29, 2001. He and his wife Treneta, (they have been married for 65 years) moved to Sun City Palm Desert in 2002. They have four grown children, two boys living in New York and two girls in California.

He gives his mind a mental workout with crossword and Sudoku puzzles, reading and “memorizing my speeches” when he lectures about Tuskegee Airmen and his life. Going to the gym three times a week for the treadmill and taking long walks are now a thing of the past since he injured his hips. He stopped playing the grand piano in his living room when the arthritis in his hands intensified.

“Otherwise, my health is pretty good,” he said.

“What I have learned, especially as a pilot, is: Listen to yourself. Never do anything you think might be wrong.”