April 07, 2020

Former airman recalls bravery of black pilots

BELFAST — When their fighter support arrived during a mission over Germany, members of Nat Crowley’s bomber wing weren’t concerned about the color of the pilots’ skin, just the color of their courage.

Crowley recounted the joy that his B-24 bomber crew felt on their way to Munich that day 52 years ago, during Monday’s celebration of the life of Martin Luther King Jr. Crowley was the main speaker for the King memorial celebration put on by Waldo County Peace and Justice. Those fighter pilots may have been black men, he said, but the nervous bombers saw only red, white and blue.

“They sure did cover us,” Crowley recalled.

He recounted that moment to the more than 50 who took part in a candlelight march through downtown Belfast, and King memorial at the Abbot Room of the Belfast Free Library Monday evening. Outside, the weather was damp and cold, but the participants were warm with the comfort that the dream of Martin Luther King Jr. remains alive.

During his long and distinguished career as an educator and legislator, Stockton Springs resident Crowley has earned a reputation as a fighter for civil and human rights. Whether in his student days of the 1930s when he butted heads with the University of Maine’s anti-Catholic fraternities, or in the Maine Legislature of the 1980s when he championed for women’s rights, Crowley has long been known as a fighter for justice.

“We flew north over the Adriatic in heavy cloud cover and everyone kept asking `where the hell is our fighter cover,”‘ Crowley recalled. “All of a sudden we heard, `we’re up here man, have no fear.”‘

Fear was not a byword of the black pilots from Tuskegee, Ala., Crowley said. The fighters stood guard over the 30 bombers all the way to Germany and back. In fact, they were one of the few fighter support groups that never lost an American bomber on all their flights over Europe.

“They were part of an elite group of pilots from Tuskegee, Alabama. On the return, they not only covered us but entertained us with maneuvers,” Crowley said. “Imagine having an elite command in a time when they could not even fraternize with us.”

For Crowley and the millions of other soldiers who fought against subjugation in World War II, to encounter the segregation of American citizens within their own ranks, was disconcerting. Black and white soldiers faced segregation in the forts and camps; they and their spouses also met it on the trains and buses of the South.

“We were given orders to stay in our white section, and I’m sure they were given orders to stay in their black section,” Crowley said of his fellow soldiers.

The memorial began with a candlelight march from Post Office Square to the Library. Marchers from age 2 to the elderly broke out in songs of patriotism and civil rights. At the library, the marchers were led by guitarist Ando Anderson in rousing sing-alongs. A moment of silence was held for those murdered in Mississippi and Alabama during the struggle for civil rights. Added to the roll of names such as King, Medgar Evers and Viola Liuzzo, was that of the unknown 25-year-old man shot Monday during a march honoring King in Baton Rouge, La.

Those attending took turns reciting paragraphs from King’s “I have a Dream” address given during the Aug. 28, 1963 March on Washington and his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

Crowley commended members of Waldo County Peace and Justice for their annual vigil in support of civil rights. He noted that of the 10 federally recognized holidays, three honor Americans. They are: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr.

“If anyone’s life is the epitome of peace and justice it is the life of Martin Luther King,” Crowley said. “He dedicated his life toward peace and justice for all.”

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