STEUBENVILLE - In the midst of their studies at West Virginia State University in the 1940s, brothers Jerome and John "Ellis" Edwards felt compelled to help defend America during World War II.
The Steubenville natives went on to become members of the elite group of African-American pilots commonly known as the "Tuskegee Airmen." The airmen were part of what was then known as the U.S. Army Air Corps.
According to the U.S. military, the term "Tuskegee Airmen" describes all African-Americans who were trained to fly and maintain combat aircraft during WW II. Airmen included pilots, navigators, bombardiers, maintenance and support staff, instructors and all other personal who kept planes flying.
The Edwards brothers were indeed "Red Tails," as showcased in the recent George Lucas film bearing the same name.
"They were both going to West Virginia State at the time they decided to join. They are both heroes," said Deborah Keith, niece of the two brothers. "They grew up at 902 Main St. in Steubenville, Ohio."
Charles T. Ledbetter, a retired education professor from West Virginia State University, said that on Sept. 10, 1939, the university became the first of six historically black colleges to be authorized by the Civil Aeronautics Authority to establish an aviation program. Howard University, Hampton Institute, Tuskegee Institute, Lincoln University of Missouri, and Delaware State were later awarded aviation programs.
After leaving West Virginia State, the Edwards brothers trained at the Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Ala.
But serving their country wasn't easy, records from the time indicate.
"Even though the Tuskegee Airmen proved their worth as military pilots they were still forced to operate in segregated units and did not fight alongside their white countrymen," the Air Force notes. The airmen battled racism and segregation in addition to the Germans.
Despite all this adversity, military records show that the younger of the two brothers, Lt. John Edwards, shot down two German ME-109 fighter planes on April 1, 1945. For his efforts, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross on May 29, 1945.
According to the Air Force, the cross is awarded to "any officer or enlisted member of the U.S. armed forces who distinguishes himself or herself by heroism or extraordinary achievement while participating in an aerial flight in support of operations."
Unfortunately, older brother Jerome Edwards was killed when the engine of his P-40 Warhawk failed during take off.
There were 992 graduates of the Negro Air Corps, 450 of whom went overseas for combat assignment. Air Force information shows these African-Americans destroyed or damaged at least:
- 409 German airplanes.
- 950 ground units.
- Sank a battleship destroyer.
While recognizing the heroics of her uncles, Keith said she hopes younger African-Americans will take an interest in aviation.
"Whether it's military aviation or just flying in general, I would really like to find a way to get high school students interested in flying. It's such a great adventure," she said.
Other members of the Tuskegee Airmen from the local region include Theodore Mason, Cadiz; George Roberts, Fairmont; and the following Pittsburgh residents: William Bailey, George Bolden, William Carter, Matthew Corbin, William Curtis, Claude Davis, Robert Glass, Cornelius Gould, George Greenlee, Edward Harris, Robert Johnson, Robert Nelson, John Rector, Charles Tate, Elmer Taylor, William Tyler, James Wiley and James Wright.