Original Tuskegee Airman appears at Red Tails exhibit in Spencer
SPENCER — Retired Army Flight Officer Terry Bailey said he never expected such a response to his Saturday appearance at the N.C. Transportation Museum in Spencer.
“They made me a rock star,” he said, as lines of people waited to shake his hand and share a word with one of the original Tuskegee Airmen, the nation’s first black military pilots.
Bailey appeared at the museum during the “Rise Above” tribute to the Tuskegee Airmen. The museum hosted the traveling exhibit Wednesday through Saturday. Consisting of a customized 53-foot trailer with expandable sides converting to a movie theater, visitors were able to view an original film detailing the history of the Tuskegee Airmen. Their struggle to be allowed to fly and fight for their country during World War II and their determination were honored in the film. With a 160 degree curved movie screen, the story was further brought to life with flying footage taken from the cockpit of a P-51 Mustang, the plane used by the Tuskegee pilots.
Hundreds experienced the exhibit during its four day run. Terry Hollis, part of the Drive Team and a Tour Manager for the exhibit, compared the Rowan County crowds to the numbers they see at the nation’s largest air shows.
Retired Flight Officer Terry Bailey, who now lives in Winston-Salem, was invited to attend with his wife, Hiji. A special honor awaited as Bailey entered the exhibit to view the film. Local opera singer Teresa Moore-Mitchell was on hand and performed the National Anthem.
Later positioned in front of the exhibit, Bailey signed autographs, shook hands, told stories, and reminisced about his days as one of the original Tuskegee Airman.
A humble and soft spoken man, Bailey was asked about his story. “I don’t have any stories,” he said, before recounting training sessions during which he buzzed corn fields and college campuses near the Tuskegee Institute in his P-51 Mustang.
Bailey joined the Army in 1944 at the age of 17, convincing his mother to sign the early release despite concerns about having two other sons already in the military. Bailey wanted to be a pilot, tested well in the enlistment exams, and was sent to the Tuskegee Institute, where black military pilots were trained.
Bailey earned his wings, living at the Tuskegee Institute and training at the nearby field. He could fly with the best of the best. His wife Hiji, whom Bailey met during his time at the Tuskegee Institute said, “I went flying with him one time. I didn’t go back.”
Bailey, laughing, said, “She didn’t like it when I dipped the wings so that she was looking at the ground.”
Bailey and his class were only ready for combat as the war effort in Europe was coming to a close. “They started to get us ready to go to Japan,” he said, but the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the Japanese surrender prevented an invasion of the country and kept Bailey at home.
The story of the Tuskegee Airmen is greater than their excellent record in the skies, however. It was a group of people who fought for the right to do their part in wartime, despite resentment and racism that would have kept them from serving to the fullest of their abilities. As the RISE ABOVE movie detailed, their efforts were part of the reason that nation’s military was integrated following World War II.
Indeed, the Tuskegee Airmen were under such close scrutiny as the nation’s first black military pilots that only individuals of the highest caliber were allowed to remain. Bailey’s wife, Hiji, said, “Terry was really lucky. They would wash those airmen out for the smallest thing,” she said.
But part of the lesson the RISE ABOVE exhibit drives home and part of Bailey’s story is that of determination. “I said ‘When this class graduates, I’m going to graduate, too,’” said Bailey.
That lesson of determination was one of the reasons Sabrina Jenkins and her family visited the museum Saturday. Kaila, Sean, Lejae and Anthony were all able to meet Terry Bailey, to shake his hand, and have their picture taken with a living part of history.
Waiting patiently in line, Jenkins described meeting Bailey, saying, “It’s a once in a lifetime moment and such a great experience for the kids to see what it was like before our time,” she said.