Tuskegee Airmen helped so many in struggle; spent time at Minter Field
Last updated 2/13/2023 at 3:55pm | View PDF
Minter Field has been giving residents a peek into the rich military history of the United States, as well as the history of the role that Minter Field has played in that history. With the observance of Black History Month, Museum Director Ronald Pierce pointed out the little-known role that Minter Field played in the history of a group of black airmen that were stationed at Minter Field.
Another Minter Field Air Museum member has a personal history when it comes to the role of these men.
Major General James Whitehead, who has been with the museum for over two decades, saw the role that they played. The group of men known as the Tuskegee Airmen was a group of 300 pilots who served in segregated units during World War II, a time when prejudice and segregation very common throughout the American South. Whitehead said that these men never lost one man during a mission out of the entire time they were in the air – and many of them spent time at Minter Field for training.
Whitehead also said that they paved the way for young pilots like himself, who had always dreamed of being a commercial pilot. "At the time, America wasn't looking for black pilots, so I joined the United States Air Force."
Whitehead was assigned to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana. With no housing available that first night in Barksdale, he had to use the infamous "Green Book" to find a black hotel to stay in Shreveport. "Back then, I was still drinking out of 'colored' water fountains and sitting in the back of the bus."
Whitehead continued to work to be recognized as a pilot and persisted, refueling B-52 bombers during the Cold War and flying fighter jets until he became the first African American to fly a U2.
After retiring from the Air Force, Whitehead fulfilled his dream of becoming a commercial airline pilot. In 1994, Whitehead moved his family to Bakersfield and got involved with the Minter Field Air Museum. He helped uncover the work of over 300 Black soldiers who were stationed at Minter Field.
Pierce said that the men did about everything on the base, from maintaining engines to cooking and working in the hospital. "You can even see the Black Army Air Corps personnel escorting a Japanese Zero that was shot down, and if you look really close you can see the [Bakersfield] Tegler Hotel in the background."
Whitehead also played a part in uncovering the existence of a secret U2 production facility that was located on Norris Road in Oildale. He found out how secret it was when local newsman Don Clark tried to get a reunion together of the people that worked there and was berated for even bringing it up. "As far as they were concerned, it never existed," Whitehead said.
The museum has an array of memorabilia concerning this time in the military's history. It's open on Fridays and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Call 661-393-0291 for more information.