Tuskegee Airman recalls time as POW

  • Published
  • By Capt. Khalid Cannon
  • 43rd Airlift Wing Public Affairs
Signing copies of his book, retired Lt. Col. Alexander Jefferson jovially spoke to all who approached his table. He took a few moments to share how his early years were shaped by his experience as a Tuskegee Airman, fighter pilot and prisoner of war.

Colonel Jefferson, who was one of 32 Tuskegee Airmen who were prisoners during World War II, offered insight into his career and life.

"I joined the Air Force because the draft was coming," he said. "I didn't want to serve in the quartermaster corps because that was the only unit offered to blacks at the time. I wanted to be an officer." 

Colonel Jefferson already had a bachelor's degree in chemistry and biology, and had a master's degree in organic chemistry from Howard University.

In April 1943, Jefferson was called to active duty and began flight training at Tuskegee Army Airfield, Ala., a month later. After completing advanced training, he graduated with 21 other Airmen, was commissioned a second lieutenant and received his wings.

His grandfather, mother and sister were in attendance. Colonel Jefferson proudly showed a photo from that day and commented that his grandfather was more than 100 years old and lived until he was 110.

"It's in my genes," Colonel Jefferson said.

After making the long trip via troop ship and a long truck ride to Ramitelli Air Base, Italy, Colonel Jefferson began flying missions in the P-51 as part of the 332nd Fighter Group under Col. Benjamin O. Davis. Though he had only flown P-39s and P-41s previously, he flew his first mission after just three hours of transition training, according to his book.

After flying 18 missions, his final one ended while flying a low-level strafing mission in Toulon Harbor, France. After two P-51s successfully strafed their targets, Colonel Jefferson flew in to hit the air control tower. Before he could release the bombs his aircraft was rocked by an anti-aircraft shell that came through the floor.

After trying to pull his aircraft up, he found himself inverted. He ejected, landed and was immediately captured by the same German artillery crew that shot him down.

Not seeing him eject from the aircraft, Colonel Jefferson's fellow Tuskegee Airmen thought he died. His parents received a killed in action letter, and didn't find out he was alive until they received notification from the Red Cross a month later.

For the next nine months, he was a prisoner in Stalag Luft III in Sagan, Germany, located near Munich. That particular POW camp was made famous in the movie "Great Escape." The British and American Airmen who escaped through tunnels had fled the camp just six months before Colonel Jefferson's arrival.

He was one of 32 Tuskegee Airmen who were POWs; only five are still alive.

"I was treated as an officer and a gentleman. I didn't have any interaction with the Germans because that was the role of the highest ranking POW in the camp."

Colonel Jefferson said he was never beaten while a captive.

One of his most vivid memories while at Stalag Luft was when a B-17 crew came into the camp. When they found out that Colonel Jefferson was a Tuskegee Airman, one of the crew told him, "Had you Red Tails been with us, we wouldn't have been shot down."

The colonel was able to keep up with the progress of the war by listening to the BBC through a small contraband radio.

On April 29, 1945, Patton's Third Army liberated Stalag Luft.

Upon his return to the United States, he struggled to find work and often was told he was "overqualified." He then pursued his teaching certificate and spent the next 35 years as an elementary school teacher in Detroit. He retired in 1970 after serving 23 years in the Air Force Reserve.

After nearly 64 years and countless life experiences later, Colonel Jefferson says "the Air Force is the best thing that ever happened to me."