An Evening with the Black Angels
Updated: Mar 3, 2019
Rising Above the Clouds
(Speaking Topics for Corporate Events)
When we’re looking for the next superhero story, we should just look back in history, say 75 years ago during World War II.
The Tuskegee Airmen were an elite all-black unit of fighter pilots…the first ever.
As this nation was battling the Nazi’s, one group of heroes was fighting 2 battles: the one against the Germans “over there” and the one against racial segregation over here.
You see, back in World War II “colored” soldiers were not allowed to fight alongside white soldiers, even though our common enemy was on the other side of the ocean, not in our own backyard.
By 1942, the US badly needed skilled pilots, & courageous young men of color responded from across the US - traveling to Tuskegee, Alabama for grueling P51 pilot training that would launch them into North Africa and the European theater against German Aces and seasoned Luftwaffe bomber escorts who had already been killing in the sky for 3 years.
Ah, the Tuskegee Airmen, members of the 332nd Fighter Group with their tails painted red… just the mention stirs nostalgia and pride from an Army Ranger, Navy Seal, or anyone who has served over there.
You may have heard them mythically mentioned in a story here or there. There were 2 good recent movies - one with Lawrence Fishburne called The Tuskegee Airmen in ’02 and Red Tails with Terence Howard in ‘12,
& now their story is on stage off-Broadway in New York in a production called Black Angels over Tuskegee.
It depicts the story of 4 black men from southern backgrounds, along with their exacting instructor, who come together to achieve their common dream of becoming the first group of African American pilots in US history. equipment.
Fighting loneliness, relentless instruction, Jim Crow segregation laws, & dilapidated training equipment are just a few of the obstacles that prepare the audience to the yet greater struggle and pain of the looming combat, and eventually the heartbreaking loss of friends over the skies of Europe.
The calamity of war hits the small 47th Street audience hard.
Late in Act II I realized it wasn’t due to low budget that the actors use their own bodies atop wooden crates to depict their P51 planes flying in deadly formation. Craning, sweeping, and soaring with their arms to the sounds of combat that filled the theater, perhaps we were viewing man himself rising up over the clouds of prejudice.
…2 brothers from Georgia are in the air flying in formation…one is hit, going down in flames, & says goodbye to the other as his plane disappears into smoke and forest.
This story I was seeing through the eyes of the actors was amazingly similar to a story that I followed 2 years ago through the eyes of a modern Anthropology expedition:
You're back in WWII. It’s 1944 and the Tuskegee fighters are in a dogfight with the Germans near the Austria/Slovenia/Italy border… Victorious in their mission over occupied territory, the team turn south towards home base in Italy before their fuel runs out, but one of the red tailed P51s has a failing engine and sadly crashes in an invisible trail of exhaust into the forest, killing Tuskegee pilot Captain Lawrence Dickson, just 24 years old with a wife and baby daughter Marla, never to be seen or heard from again. Austrian records report a little girl named Kandutsch seeing a plane crash into the trees, but with so much devastation from the war, the allied plane is never recovered.
Fast forward 73 years ahead to 2017. Near a remote Austrian village, someone had just seen a piece of aircraft and it fits the location of where the plane went down. A University of New Orleans Anthropology expedition returned to Austria with the permission of the government to search for the remains of Cpt Dickson. A dozen excited grad students and their professor headed over to set up camp & dig.
I know one of the students - he's actually older than the professor himself, & had been alive in Louisiana when the plane went down – a 7 year-old boy then, now 80 year-old grandfather Ralston Cole. Back in school for his Master’s degree in his 9th decade, he was determined to join the other millennials and return Lawrence Dickson home – a potentially remarkable chapter in Tuskegee Airmen history. Remarkable turned out to be the finding of their 5-week dig – an engraved ring with the pilot’s initials that his wife had given him – was recovered after 73 years. Ralston and the students were overjoyed. “I cried the day we found the ring & we knew the Captain would be buried back home”, Ralston told his own daughter Lucinda from the dig site – closure for an American hero who had been listed as MIA for ¾ of a century.
The ring was carried back to the US and presented to Lawrence’s baby daughter Marla – now 76 & living in NJ. She had finally been presented with a golden reminder of her dad’s devotion, and his official recognition for burial at Arlington National Cemetery.
80 yr-old Ralston Cole is a cool guy – a Naval Academy grad from New Orleans & lots of energy. 6 of his 11 grandkids & family are my friends nearby in Delaware.
They proudly tell the story of Grandpa RaRa’s dig over in Europe to bring the hero’s ring back home.
I really love that story – so I shared it with the actors in New York last week as they came out to greet the audience after the show.
They wanted to hear all about it, and I could feel them inhaling it into their lungs to strengthen their own upcoming portrayals. We hugged right there in the theater, and appreciated each other’s service: mine and Ralston’s on land & sea, CPT Dickson’s in the air, and the courageous actors for bringing it to life for thousands on stage.
Black Angels plays at the Actors Temple Theatre on 339 W 47th St.
And will be on the road later this year
– at & my old post Ft Bragg, NC on Sep 12, 2019
...Coming up soon:
Running with the Bulls in Pamplona
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...contact me @ armyrangeratMIT@gmail.com