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Tuskegee Airmen Top Guns Celebrated


Tuskegee Airmen Top Guns Celebrated

A pilot and mechanic from the 1949 competition will speak at UC Riverside on Nov. 5.

(October 27, 2011)

RIVERSIDE, Calif. – Lt. Col. James Harvey III, one of two surviving Tuskegee Airmen pilots who won the first Top Gun competition conducted by the U.S. Air Force in 1949, and Master Sgt. Buford Johnson, chief mechanic for the team of African-American pilots, will speak at UC Riverside for the 7th Annual Tuskegee Airmen Celebration Nov. 5.

They will join keynote speaker Zellie Rainey Orr, author of “Top Guns” and national historian for Tuskegee Airmen Inc. She will talk about her discovery of the missing 1949 Top Gun trophy that Tuskegee Airmen won in the propeller division of the competition, and her successful advocacy for its ongoing display at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force at Wright Patterson Air Force Base.

The theme of the celebration is “Tuskegee Airmen: Top Guns.” The event will be held from 2 to 4:15 p.m. in the Orbach Science Library. Guests will have an opportunity to greet the participating Tuskegee Airmen during a reception after the program.

The event is free and open to the public, but reservations are required due to limited seating. For reservations, contact Carole Meyer-Rieth at (951) 827-3221 by Nov. 1. Parking is $5.

The U.S. Air Force held its first Weapons Meet at Las Vegas Air Force Base (now Nellis AFB) on May 2, 1949. The 332nd Fighter Group team of Tuskegee Airmen – Capt. Alva Temple, 1st Lt. Harry Stewart, 1st Lt. James Harvey and alternate pilot 1st Lt. Halbert Alexander – won the competition flying their P-47N Thunderbolts. However, the 332nd Fighter Group was not recognized as the winner until April 1995.

Harvey later became the military’s first African-American jet fighter pilot to fly missions over Korea. Johnson became the first African-American aircraft mechanic certified and assigned by the U.S. military to work on jets.

The annual Tuskegee Airmen Celebration honors airmen and women who were a part of the famed Tuskegee Experience at Moton Field, Tuskegee, Ala. The graduates of the program, which trained the first African-American pilots between 1943 and 1945, established an enviable record during World War II.

UC Riverside established an archive in 2005 to document the history of the airmen and women and has held an annual program since that time to recall and celebrate their history and accomplishments.

“Star Wars” creator George Lucas is producing a film about the Tuskegee Airmen, “Red Tails,” which is scheduled for release in January 2012. Some actors who auditioned for the Lucasfilm production visited the UCR archive to prepare for the film, said UCR Librarian Ruth Jackson. Resources from the archive also were used in the production of the Tuskegee Airmen documentary in production by Lucasfilm.

“We have inquiries from all over the world, from as far away as Switzerland,” Jackson said.

For example, a salvage team retrieving a plane that was shot down off the coast of Corsica in World War II contacted the UCR archive for a photo of the Tuskegee pilot. The university was able to provide a group photo that included the pilot.

To date 79 donors have contributed papers, artifacts and historical records documenting the military careers and personal lives of dozens of Tuskegee Airmen, including Buford Johnson, who lives in Inland Southern California.

Among the largest of the “whole life” collections in the archive are those of 1st Lt. William B. Ellis, co-founder of the Los Angeles chapter of the Tuskegee veterans organization, who died in Riverside in 2010; Paul D. Lehman and Lt. Col. Arthur C. Harmon.

“The emphasis of our archive is to collect not only the military history but the history of their personal lives as well,” Jackson explained. “The University of California, Riverside is very proud to be a part of the national initiative to collect the history of the Tuskegee Airmen and women. In addition to their distinguished military record and playing a major role in integrating the armed services and aviation, they have contributed tremendously to all aspects of American history and life. They served as judges, university presidents, teachers, architects, engineers, physicians, actors, scientists, and musicians, etc. They have accomplished many, many things.”

The military Top Gun competition was made famous by the hit movie “Top Gun,” featuring Hollywood megastar Tom Cruise, in 1986. As a prelude to the celebration, Cruise will have his fully restored P-51 plane do a flyover at the UCR campus between 1:30 and 2 p.m. – just before the program begins – to salute the three surviving Tuskegee Airmen Top Guns. Matt Jackson, a race pilot who takes care of Cruise's plane, will pilot. Accompanying him in the aircraft will be Randy Hepner, Cruise's personal pilot. The P-51 was one of the primary airplanes flown in combat by the Tuskegee Airmen during World War II.


Top Gun team members, shown in this 1949 photo with their trophy, are (from left) 1st Lt. Halbert Alexander, 1st Lt. James Harvey, Capt. Alva Temple and 1st Lt. Harry Stewart.<br />
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Top Gun team members, shown in this 1949 photo with their trophy, are (from left) 1st Lt. Halbert Alexander, 1st Lt. James Harvey, Capt. Alva Temple and 1st Lt. Harry Stewart.

The University of California, Riverside (www.ucr.edu) is a doctoral research university, a living laboratory for groundbreaking exploration of issues critical to Inland Southern California, the state and communities around the world. Reflecting California's diverse culture, UCR's enrollment has exceeded 21,000 students. The campus opened a medical school in 2013 and has reached the heart of the Coachella Valley by way of the UCR Palm Desert Center. The campus has an annual statewide economic impact of more than $1 billion.

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