Tuskegee Airmen

By: Suzanne Hanney May 27, 2019

During a World War II bombing mission over Europe, Tuskegee Airman John "Jack" Lyle flew his plane close enough to a German Messerschmitt that he was nearly eye to eye with its pilot. The two men stared at each other, nodded, then peeled off in opposite directions.

Perhaps it was easier to shoot at a faceless enemy, author A.K. Morris wrote in “Captain of His Fate,” her book about the Chicago-born Lyle’s experiences as one of the first U.S. African American combat pilots.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt had made a 1940 campaign promise to allow blacks to become military pilots but the War Department insisted that they train and serve in segregated units, Air Force historian Daniel L. Haulman, Ph.D wrote on tuskegeeairmen.org. Nearly 1,000 black pilots completed the regular program of advanced flight training at Tuskegee Army Air Field, a site chosen because it had more good days of flying weather than many other parts of the U.S. and the requisite segregated environment.

“The historical significance of the Tuskegee Airmen is that they were the first black pilots in American military history, and by performing well in combat, proved that they fully deserved the same opportunities offered to white pilots and servicemen,” Haulman wrote. “Their record encouraged the Air Force to integrate before the other services. The Tuskegee Airmen provided role models for others, demonstrating how determination and persistence can overcome many obstacles. They risked their lives for their country even at a time when they were denied equal opportunities and their actions helped open the door of equal opportunity to others of their race.”

Talking to Morris at his kitchen table for the book, however, Lyle said he and his peers cared more about flying than racism. “We all had a devil-may-care attitude about it. We were all sneering at racists. We all had supreme self-confidence…kinda cocky. I never heard this ‘we’re doing this to prove something.’ What I heard was, ‘we’re doing this because we like it.’ We didn’t need to prove anything. We weren’t trying to show people anything.”

“He wasn’t the type that liked to brag,” said StreetWise Vendor John Kidd (badge number 313), who sells the magazine at Diversey and Clark Streets and at North Avenue and Wells and who suggested Lyle’s story for the magazine’s Memorial Day edition. “He looked at it as a job, a simple job, and he did it.”

Just the same, Kidd wants people to have the example of Lyle’s life. “He was a role model as far as bravery, honor, loyalty. We can do anything we put our minds to if we just stay focused.” Lyle died January 5 at age 98, before he could take Kidd sailing this summer.

When he was a child, Lyle’s mother gave him a complete set of the Harvard Classics, a 50-volume anthology that could theoretically yield a liberal education through 15 minutes of reading a day. He home schooled himself. “I quit school because I disagreed with everything. I thought I was too smart. I was reading Nietsche already. I guess I was a difficult student because I didn’t agree with what they were teaching.”

Armed with business cards that read “Jack Lyle, Esq.,” he got a job at the Chicago Public Library as a page, which allowed him to spend time among the books and to retrieve them for patrons. After leaving the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1942, he was drafted into World War II.

A year later, he was serving in the Army infantry when a recruiter told him about the expansion of the Tuskegee Airmen. The requirements of a college degree and flight experience had been replaced by an aptitude test. “Made it sound exciting but didn’t talk about the danger,” Lyle said in the book. “He said, ‘If you pass the examination, you become a commissioned officer, with a good salary.’”

After 27 months of flight instruction, Lyle graduated as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army Air Corps, with proficiency in navigation, gunnery and communication. As part of the 332nd Fighter Group 99th Pursuit Squadron, he left for Europe in December 1944. On his first mission, he felt fear when an enemy plane shot at him.

But two or three missions later, Lyle had a “mystical experience” over the Alps. He suddenly appreciated the reality of what he was doing and that he might die before the mission was over. Then he was calm. “He said he realized that if anything happened he would return to the universe from whence he came,” Morris wrote. “From then on, he just sat back and enjoyed the ride. He got shot at plenty but never shot down: 26 engagements and he was never hit.”

The 332nd Fighter Group’s most memorable mission was escorting B-17 bombers to Berlin on March 24, 1945. The Germans were accustomed to planes flying from Britain, to the east, but these aircraft came from bases to the south, in Italy. They destroyed a Daimler-Benz tank assembly plant so that the Germans did not have these armored vehicles to use against advancing Allies near the end of the war. The mission earned the 332nd Fighter Group a Distinguished Unit Citation.

Lyle was skeptical that their combat experience changed 1940s attitudes about race. Getting a job was no easier after the war.

A commercial airline told Lyle they didn’t hire blacks, said his wife, Eunice Jackson Lyle. He wound up as a milk delivery man and he wore his officer’s dress uniform cap as an expression of political hypocrisy. He washed windows and worked in a mattress warehouse. In 1952 he joined the Park District police and patrolled South Side parks and beaches. He drove cabs, sold insurance, and was working in the Cook County Jail when he came upon the idea of tree surgery, and invested in the equipment.

Mrs. Lyle assisted him in this business by outfitting a spare room as an office, having business cards made, and by a contract with the Chicago Board of Education. She was also the one who spearheaded publication of the book. After she found a metal suitcase in the basement filled with childhood and World War II photos of him as a little boy and World War II letters home to his mother, “I came upstairs and had an epiphany. I said, ‘Gee, this is something people should be made aware of.’”

Lyle’s mom was an opera singer and “an amazing woman,” Mrs. Lyle said.

“She worshipped her child, wanted the best for him, which is why she put him in violin lessons, got this 50-volume set of the Harvard Classics,” Mrs. Lyle said. “He knew that he was loved. She didn’t spoil him but she educated him. She gave him the best she could being a single parent. His mom instilled in him that he was capable of doing anything, so he went for it. Nothing was a challenge to him.”

Lyle lived a testosterone-charged life. As a youth he rode horses in Washington Park that had belonged to heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis. He practiced martial arts, lifted weights, rode motorcycles. He was a marksman who also taught his wife how to shoot. For more than 60 years he loved sailing, which he compared to flying because of the similarities between wind and water currents, the feeling of being one with the elements.

But he told Morris that he was not a daredevil. “I am a very safe sailor. I’ve made all the mistakes that can be made and by doing that, I’ve learned something. So as a consequence, I have a high degree of confidence on the water. People think I am foolhardy but I am just doing what I know how to do.”

“I learned if I am going to do something, I am going to do it well,” Mrs. Lyle said. “I can hold my own but it was good to have him by my side. If I fell he would pick me up and I would do the same thing with him.” He was a true partner since their marriage in 1983.

“You taught me what a real man is,” she wrote in a poem about him. “You were a gentleman, a hard worker and a scholar.” Any setbacks he had, he overcame, she said.

Melvin Knazze met Lyle at Jackson Park Yacht Club and helped find the author for the book. Retired from U.S. Navy aviation, Knazze is historian of the Chicago chapter of Tuskegee Airmen Inc., one of 57 in the U.S.  He’s also active in its Young Eagles program, which gives kids 8 to 17 an introduction to aviation and a free plane ride in conjunction with the Experimental Aircraft Association. Young Eagles is important, he said, because it lets young people see themselves in aviation careers: as pilots or skilled technicians.

The Tuskegee Airmen are an example for children of what they can become, he said, whereas in his own 1950s childhood, there was only the white TV rancher-pilot, “Sky King.” The Airmen were also at the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement, he said.

“They dispelled that myth about black men, that they can’t fly complicated aircraft,” Knazze said. “What gives me the motivation to keep talking about these things is the subliminal castration of black men. If you don’t talk about them, see them as heroes, eventually they’ll just die and be washed away. Just keep tearing them down a little at a time.”

Mrs. Lyle also sees the book as a teaching tool for youth. She recalled a lady who came to a book signing at Bookie’s in Beverly last year with her grandsons, who were age 8 to 14.

“Were you scared?” the boys asked Lyle.

“He patted the children on the shoulder and told them they could do anything they set their mind to,” she said. “If he could do it, it gives them hope. They have to think they can. First it has to be a thought before it can be a reality.”