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Captain John Whitehead climbs aboard an Air Force Jet one of many he flew during his military career.

LAWRENCEVILLE — As a teenager John Lyman Whitehead, Jr. developed a keen interest in airplanes and flying. Whitehead who was born in Lawrenceville on May 14, 1924 eventually entered the military as a pilot serving during World War II, the Korean War and Vietnam War. His father John L. Whitehead, Sr., was employed by Saint Paul’s College.

At the age of 19 he decided to join the U. S. Army Air Corps and was assigned to Tuskegee Army Air Field at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.

Whitehead recalled in later years that he told his family and friends he chose the Air Force because, “I had rather fly through this war instead of walk through it.”

At Tuskegee he excelled at learning to fly and received his pilot’s wings on Sept. 8, 1944 and was commissioned a second lieutenant. He was also now known as one of the Tuskegee Airmen who were part of the Tuskegee Experiment.

African Americans prior to 1940 had been denied the opportunity to become officers or be trained for combat in the military because many believed that they were not capable for any combat role. They also were not allowed to become pilots.

In 1941 after much pressure from the African American community an all African American flight squadron would be created at Tuskegee, Alabama. The Tuskegee Experiment was the Army Air Corps program, which would train African Americans to fly and handle maintenance on combat aircraft. The program would end up being a huge success producing some of the most recognized pilots in the military.

Whitehead would later say that the pilot training program at Tuskegee was a success only because the black pilots who were there wouldn’t let it fail.

“It was an experiment that was established that was supposed to fail.” Whitehead said in a 1984 interview with the Portland Oregonian newspaper, “But the people who were involved in it weren’t going to let it fail.”

In March of 1945 Whitehead joined the 301st Fighter Squadron, 332nd Fighter Group, which was one of four black squadrons. The 332 Fighter Group was known as the Red Tails and was based at Ramitelli Airfield in Foggia, Italy flying missions over Europe during World War II.

It was in Italy that Whitehead received the nickname “Mr. Death” not because of the number of planes shot down but because of his slender thin 5’ 6” 120 pound body. When he arrived in Italy the commanding officer Bob Friend took one look at Whitehead and said “My Gawd! What have they sent us now as a replacement, Mr. Death?” Whitehead liked the name so much he had it painted on the nose of his plane.

Whitehead had two very close calls flying missions during World War II. In the first situation, he was in a brief battle with 22 German planes.

During the second encounter Whitehead became separated from his wingman and was flying alone over enemy territory. German antiaircraft guns began firing at him from the front and back and he could see holes in the wings and then the engine began to have problems.

Whitehead would later tell a writer for Ebony magazine that “I talked to that engine like it was a baby all the way home and I was sure hoping it understood me.”

Whitehead made it back to base and found that a piece of metal had passed through the parachute he was wearing and stopped about an inch from hitting his body.

While in Italy, Whitehead flew 19 missions into Germany before the end of World War II at which time he returned to Tuskegee Army Air Field. He was transferred to Lockbourne Army Air Base where he stayed until 1947 when he left the military to return to West Virginia State College where he received a Bachelor of Science Degree in Industrial Engineering in 1948.

Whitehead had barely finished at West Virginia State when he was recalled to active duty in August and was soon assigned to the Williams Air Force Base in Arizona as the United States Air Force’s first black jet pilot instructor.

He was then assigned to Boeing Aircraft Corporation serving as the Training Command Representative on the B-47 aircraft.

At the beginning of the Korean War, Whitehead flew over 104 missions.

After the Korean War, John Whitehead worked as a liaison between the Air Force and Boeing Aircraft and Northrop, two of the country’s largest producers of jet aircraft.

Lt. Col. Whitehead ended his 28-year career with the Air Force after serving as the chief of standardization and evaluation division and deputy group commander of the maintenance and supply group at Edwards Air Force Base in 1974.

Lawrenceville resident Billy Smith remembers as a kid seeing Whitehead in town and hearing about him from adults who knew about his career.

“He was a pretty sharp dresser.” said Smith. “You didn’t see many black military officers in Lawrenceville. He was a legend in his time and people talked about him a lot.”

Smith said he heard a story that he never could confirm from the late Coach Tenus Thompson about Whitehead. “Tenus told me that Whitehead had buzzed the town a couple times with planes after he got his pilot’s license,” said Smith.

In just under 30 years with the Air Force, Lt. Col. John Whitehead is credited with being the Air Force’s first African American test pilot and the first African-American jet pilot instructor. His heroic and dedicated service resulted in him being awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross with five oak leaf clusters, the Air Medal with seven oak leaf clusters, along with the Army Commendation Medal and the Air Force Commendation Medal.

He also logged over 9,500 flying hours with 5,000 hours in jet aircraft and he flew 40 different types of aircraft including fighters, bombers and transports. The campground at Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park in southern California is named for Whitehead, one of many honors he received during and after his life.

Whitehead died on Sept. 6, 1992 and was buried in the Riverside National Cemetery in Sacramento, Calif.