Bed-Stuy residents received an invaluable history lesson yesterday from one of the community’s living legends: Lt. Colonel John Mulzac, one of the original Tuskegee Airmen.
The 87-year-old bomber pilot came to the Bedford-Stuyvesant YMCA (where he is also a member) to share his experience serving among the first group of black World War II pilots of the 477th Pursuit Squadron.
Emmy Award-winning broadcaster Ed Gordon moderated the event:
“Did you have any idea at the time that what you were doing would be historic?” Gordon asked Mulzac.
“When we started this, we didn’t know what would happen later on. We didn’t think it was anything safe, but it was something we had to do because we were the first,” said Mulzac.
“We wanted to show young people that we were not failures. We had to strive to be the best we could be.”
Initially called the “Tuskegee Experiment,” the first class of cadet aviators began in July 1941 with 13 students at the Tuskegee Army Air Field, about 40 miles east of Montgomery, Alabama.
Black people weren’t allowed to fly in the military at the time, and the “experiment” was to see whether they could pilot airplanes and handle heavy machinery.
Even after the black airmen were admitted, many continued to believe they didn't have the intelligence, ability or patriotism to do the job.
Gordon probed Mulzac about his source of courage and his willingness to defend and possibly die for his country during the Jim Crow era, a time when blacks were treated as second-class citizens and a time when the armed forces were still segregated.
Mulzac related a story about when he and a group of other black pilots were taking a train down South, headed toward Tuskegee, preparing to go off to war. They were uniformed officers fighting for their country. Still, when the group was ready to have dinner, one of the train conductors pulled a curtain around the group so that they would be separated from view from the rest of the diners.
“I just put my head down on the table and I cried,” said Mulzac. “I thought, 'I’ve given up my education, my family to go fight for my country, and this is what they’re going to do to me?' I said, ‘From now on, John Mulzac is going to make something of himself!’”
“It was an opportunity to do something that we were not supposed to be able to do,” Mulzac said. “When you have an opportunity, just seize it. Take it. Don’t waste time.”
The Tuskegee airmen went on more than 1,500 combat trips throughout Europe, the Mediterranean and North Africa.
Nearly 1,000 pilots were trained at the Tuskegee Army Air Field before it closed in 1946. President Truman’s 1948 order to desegregate the country’s armed forces eventually led to a military in which blacks served alongside their white counterparts.
After Mulzac was discharged, he said, the first job he took after returning to Brooklyn was laying tracks for the New York Transit Authority. He then was among 4,000 applicants to test to become a New York City Firefighter. He was chosen from one of 800 slots.
He then started flying planes for the Air Force Reserve on weekends, eventually working two jobs at one time— flying planes to Vietnam in between working as a firefighter back in Brooklyn.
“I hardly saw my wife,” said Mulzac who has been married now for 67 years.
“But we went on to have eight children,” he said to resounding audience laughter.
All eight of Mulzac’s children graduated from college. One of his grandsons, Channing Frye, plays for the Phoenix Suns.
Gordon asked Mulzac how he feels about the state of Black America today – whether he feels the community is moving in the right direction:
“This is the greatest country in the world. Yes, it has a lot of problem. And no, it is not perfect. But it is still a place of great opportunity.
“I want the young people to take advantage of the opportunities they have in front of them. Do something that you like and be ready to do it for nothing. Also, make it mean something to those around you,” said Mulzac.
“Not everyone is going to go to college. I didn’t go to college. But if I can’t go up the ladder, then I’m gonna go up the steps.
“I never envisioned I’d be flying airplanes around the world. And it wasn’t until 60 years later that we got recognition for what we did. But you must always strive to be the best at whatever it is you want to do… And don’t feel that because you’re not a leader or that you're not outspoken that your role is not important. If you don’t carry the flag, support someone who’s carrying it.”