Editor’s Note: This is the fourth in a series of articles honoring black leaders in the history of the Wiregrass in honor of Black History Month.
“He was just ‘daddy,’” said Sheron Rose, laughing at the question about her earliest memories of renowned Tuskegee Airman Sherman Rose. “He was just ‘daddy.’”
Sheron Rose is the Senior Vice President of External Affairs for the Montgomery Area Chamber of Commerce. She is the only daughter of the late Sherman T. Rose, one of four Tuskegee Airman who ultimately taught pilots at Fort Rucker and who are memorialized on a mural in downtown Dothan.
The Tuskegee Airmen were the first black military aviators in the U.S. Army Air Corps, a precursor of the U.S. Air Force. From their inception in 1939 as the Civilian Pilot Training Program, the airmen trained at the Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama and flew more than 15,000 individual sorties in Europe and North Africa during World War II.
Their performance earned them more than 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses and helped encourage the eventual integration of the U.S. armed forces.
Retired Air Force Col. Roosevelt J. Lewis Jr., former owner of Air Tuskegee and manager of Moton Field, the original aviation home of the Tuskegee Airmen, has spent decades researching the legacy of the trail blazing pilots. “I met 426 of them over the years,” Lewis said. “Sherman was an amazing individual who inspired so many and achieved so many things in his life very humbly as he went about the business of kicking pilots out of the nest to serve the nation.”
Lewis attended Tuskegee after graduating as valedictorian at the age of 16 from Heart of Mary High School in Mobile. A self-proclaimed “chemistry nerd,” Lewis said participating in ROTC was mandatory at that time for Tuskegee students. He joined the Air Force program and soon after that met Tuskegee Airman C. Alfred Anderson, known to most as “Chief” Anderson. “He was destined to become one of my best friends in my adult lifetime,” Lewis said about the pilot who took then first lady Eleanor Roosevelt for a 40-minute impromptu flight. “Chief took me under his wing, gave me my first flight in an airplane, taught me to fly and introduced me to a close friend of his, Sherman Rose, who was training pilots at Fort Rucker.”
There were four original Tuskegee Airmen teaching at the Home of Army Aviation, Lewis said. Milton Crenshaw, James "Muscles" Wright and Leroy Ely were men that Sheron Rose said she just knew as “uncles” until she was an adult. “I was 35 years old and at his funeral before I even knew that ‘Chief’s’’ first name was Alfred,” she recalled with a smile. “Just like Uncle Ely. I was an adult before I knew his first name was Leroy. He, too, taught at Fort Rucker. Milton Crenshaw lived in Ozark and worked at Fort Rucker. Uncle Muscles was one of my two Godfathers. Our families remain close and stay in touch.
“Sherman was one of those folks you could not forget,” Lewis said. “He was a prince of a man. He always motivated us to think about things in life as a whole, not just aviation. That was the kind of person he was.”
Lewis said all his honors and accomplishments “paled in comparison” next to being able to come back to Tuskegee to upgrade the airport, set up a flight training program and to try to facilitate a Tuskegee Airmsn national historic site there. “Those things did come to happen after years of work inspired by the airmen. They not only inspired me, they actually motivated me to not give up,” he said.
“You have to understand the importance of the Tuskegee Airmen,” Lewis said. “They were the first black pilots in aviation history. They became famous for their exploits in World War II and the Korean War.
“The Tuskegee Airmen were integral in the civil rights movement,” he added. “Because of their example of excellence President Franklin D. Roosevelt integrated the military.”
The Tuskegee Airmen flew hundreds of patrol and attack missions for the 12th Air Force, flying P-40 and P-39 airplanes before they were reassigned to the 15th Air Force to escort B-17 and B-24 heavy bombers, using P-47 and P-51 airplanes.
American bomber crews nicknamed the 332nd, the Red Tails or Red Tail Angels after the red tail markings on the vertical stabilizers of the unit's aircraft. The Luftwaffe called the Tuskegee AirmeDer Schwarze Vogelmenschen, literally the Black Birdmen. Their motto was “Spit fire.”
Lewis said the Tuskegee Airmen were dedicated, determined young men trained to be single-engine pilots and later to be either twin-engine pilots, navigators or bombardiers. Most were college graduates. Enlisted members were trained to be aircraft and engine mechanics, armament specialists, radio repairmen, parachute riggers, control tower operators, policemen, administrative clerks and all of the other skills necessary to fully function as an Army Air Corp flying squadron or ground support unit.
The first aviation cadet class began in July 1941 and completed training nine months later in March 1942.
The tenacious bomber escort cover provided by the 332nd “Red Tail” fighters often discouraged enemy fighter pilots from attacking bombers they escorted.
“Sherman was one who was never looking for the spotlight. He was always that supporting rock that was really interested in the flight students,” Lewis said about the flight instructor who in later years would get a chair and sit on the flight line at Moton Field while visiting Tuskegee. “And when word would get around that we had a Tuskegee Airman instructor on the field, the landings were so much better,” Lewis said laughing at the memory. “The attention to detail was so amazing. I always made a point to introduce Sherman Rose to the airmen who were at the airport. He would sit down and chat with them.
Sherman Rose died in 2008 in Dothan at the age of 88. Born the son of school teachers in Missouri, he attended school in Luther, Okla. and he attended Langston University, then Colored Agricultural and Normal University, in Langston, Okla. He went on to attend Tuskegee Institute where flight training was initiated under the Civil Pilot Training Program.
In 1939, Sherman Rose completed private pilot course and attained flight instructor rating. He remained as a flight instructor at Tuskegee Institute, Division of Aeronautics.
From 1946 to1955, Sherman Rose was employed with North American Aviation, Inc. From 1955 to 1974, he was a Department of the Army Civilian Fixed and Rotary Wing instructor pilot at Fort Rucker. He retired as a Department of the Army Civilian Flight Instructor at Fort Rucker in 1974.
Sherman Rose was a member of First Missionary Baptist Church, where he was active as a Sunday school teacher, member of the Trustee Board and a driver of the church van. His daughter remembers Enterprise Mayor William Cooper as a member of the church at that time. “Boy, he could blow a trumpet,” she recalls with a smile.
Sherman Rose was on the Board of Directors of the Hawk Houston Boys Club of Dothan, Wiregrass Rehabilitation Center and Habitat for Humanities, as well as serving as the Grand Marshall for the 2000 National Peanut Festival Parade.
On North Saint Andrews Street in Dothan, a 53-feet long by 12-feet high mural, created by Dothan artist Wes Hardin in 2001, pays homage to the Tuskegee Airman and flight instructor Sherman Rose.
Sheron Rose said that her father’s day and nighttime goggles have been accepted by the African American Museum in Washington, D.C. “They were actually on my parents’ coffee table in the living room for years and then I kept them in my safe deposit box,” she said. “About two years ago I offered them to the museum.
“When I was a youngster sometimes people would knock on the door and want to come and talk with my father,” she recalled. “He was my daddy. He taught me how to ride my bicycle. He took my friends and I to choir rehearsal, girl scouts, skating at Bob A Lu skating rink and and picked us up after school. He taught me how to drive. I had to not only successfully pass the Alabama Department of Public Safety driving test but his as well. He said that I should be able to bring the car to a complete stop without passengers ever feeling it. I thought that was a bit much to expect from a teenage driver, but ok. To this day when I travel via air, I determine the quality of my flight based on how smooth the landing is. Most importantly, he was a good provider for his family and volunteer in the community in which he lived and worked. Whenever a small plane or helicopter flies over, I never fail to look up, smile and acknowledge that Daddy is still checking in.
“The Tuskegee Airman succeeded not because of, but rather in spite of, the adversity and barriers that were placed before them,” she said. “The legacy of the Red Tails is deep and wide.”