An Iowan Joins the Tuskegee Airmen During World War II | First Lieutenant Luther Smith

The Tuskegee Airmen, officially known as the 332nd fighter group, were the first African Americans to fly planes in the U.S. military. Although they faced severe discrimination in the country and mandates of the Jim Crow laws in the south, they volunteered in large numbers to help fight in World War II. In the skies over Italy, 24-year-old first lieutenant Luther Smith of Des Moines was on his second tour of duty. As a member of the Tuskegee Airmen, officially known as the 332nd fighter group, Smith was eventually assigned to bomber escort duty in 1944. His job was to protect American bombers from German fighters.


Transcript

In the skies over Italy, 24-year-old first lieutenant Luther Smith of Des Moines was on his second tour of duty. As a member of the Tuskegee Airmen, officially known as the 332nd fighter group, Smith was eventually assigned to bomber escort duty in 1944. His job was to protect American bombers from German fighters. 

“The Germans realized that these young black pilots stayed with the bombers and protected them very, very effectively. The bomber crews realized, as they were escorted by these black aviators, they were going to get to their target safely and get back. And that was really the beginning of racial equality, when the white bomber crews realized these guys protecting them were every bit as good as anybody could be because they were able to carry out their missions successfully.” 

On one mission over southern France, a German ME 109 fighter plane penetrated the flight of bombers smith was sent to protect. He approached in his p-51 mustang. 
“And as I did, I was parallel with the German airplane, and I could see it was just a young person. He didn't have an oxygen mask on, because I could see his face. And so it was just a youth, and to me it appeared to be about a 16- or 17-year-old youth. And I couldn't imagine I was up there, going to shoot down somebody who was just a boy. But I had my job to do. So I said, "well, I’m going to take the airplane out." and I shot the airplane and it went down.” During his tour of duty, Smith shot down two German fighter planes and destroyed ten German aircraft on the ground. By the end of the war, the 332nd had performed 200 escort missions without the loss of a single bomber. Later that same year, after 132 successful missions, Smith met with trouble. The bomber escort mission he was assigned to had been uneventful. While the pilots in his squadron were returning to base, they were shooting at train cars and airplanes on the ground. It was Friday the 13th of October, 1944. Near Balaton, Hungary, not far from Budapest, Smith was shooting at some rail cars and one of them exploded. Smith was forced to fly through the cloud of debris, and his airplane was severely damaged. As he attempted to bail out, the plane went into a tailspin and his right foot got caught inside the cockpit. 

“The airplane was on fire, and I said to myself, so this is how guys go. I was caught in the airplane, and I wasn't going to be able to make it.” Smith eventually got out of his airplane, came to rest in a tree, and was captured by German soldiers. After some major surgery in German hospitals, he spent the next seven months in a prison camp.


Excerpt from "Iowa's WWII Stories," Iowa PBS, 2006