Saturday, March 7, 2009

MAJOR HERNDON CUMMINGS - A Fighter for Freedoms

Major Herndon Cummings
An Airman from Tuskegee

A Fighter For Freedoms

This is a story of a Laurens County man who fought for the freedom of his country and the freedom of his people. Herndon Cummings was a member of what has collectively been called the "Tuskegee Airmen." Though he was not a part of the highly acclaimed circle of fighter pilots, Cummings served as a pilot in a bomber group which trained in the United States during World War II. In the waning moths of the war, Cummings found himself embroiled in one of the war's most controversial, yet unpublicized, instances, the first major attempt to integrate an all-white officer's club.

Herndon M. Cummings was born on April 25, 1919. The son of Joseph and Mollie Hill Cummings, Don grew up in the Burgamy District in the Old Macon Road area of northwestern Laurens County. Don was a grandson of Rev. Daniel D. Cummings, who saw to it that all of his children were educated. Many of his children excelled beyond their high school training to become professionals in a day when few blacks did.

Cummings said his interest in aviation was sparked on Christmas Day in 1928 when his father gave him a toy German zeppelin. His interest in flying was forever sealed in 1936 when Don and his brother took a five-dollar ride in a Ford Tri-Motor plane. As the plane soared in the skies west of Dublin, Don underwent a life-altering experience. "By the time the plane landed, I knew what I wanted to do," he recalled.

Like many other teenagers of his day, Don Cummings wanted to fly. The problem was that there were only a scant number of black pilots who had the means or were given a chance to fly. The United States Army Air Force instituted what was deemed "The Tuskegee Experiment." It was a program, thought by many to be designed to fail, to train black pilots to serve in Europe during World War II. Don Cummings enlisted in the Air Corps on June 25, 1942. He listed his occupation as a carpenter.

For nearly two years, Lt. Cummings trained in the B-25 bomber at Tuskegee and later at Lockbourne Air Force Base in Columbus, Ohio, where he would later make his home. Of the nine hundred to a thousand men who successfully completed their training at Tuskegee, most trained as fighter pilots in the P-51 fighter and other fighters. These men, who have been immortalized in books and films, were assigned to the 332nd Fighter Squadron and saw action in the skies of Europe during the last months of the war escorting long range bombers. These brave young men were credited with losing none, or only a very few, of the fighters they escorted.

Lt. Cummings was assigned to the 477th Bomber Group. The 477th was organized at Selfridge Army Air Field, Michigan in 1944. Many of the members of the group were commanded by white officers, who according to some, favored white officers over the black officers. Concerns over racial troubles in Detroit forced the group to move to Godman Field near Fort Knox, Kentucky. By March 1945, the 477th was uprooted again and moved to Freemen Army Field at Seymour, Indiana.

In 1940, the Army published a regulation that any officer's club must be open to any officer, three years before the Tuskegee Airmen received their commission and long before the government officially ended segregation in the armed forces. The field at Freeman maintained two clubs, one for supervisors and one for trainees, but were defacto separated between blacks and whites. In the early days of April 1945, the relationships between the commanding officers and the black pilots began to deteriorate rapidly. Some five dozen were placed under house arrest. The men were released, but field commander Selway determined that all of the black pilots were to be designated as "trainees" and were assigned to their own club building. It so happened that all of the trainees were black and the white officers had their own building.

On April 9th, all pilots were asked to sign a pledge to comply with Selway's directive. Lt. Cummings joined one hundred of his fellow pilots and refused to sign. They were arrested on the day President Franklin D. Roosevelt died. "The regulations said we could go in but the commanding officer said we couldn't," Cummings said. He added, "we just wanted a beer, why else would we go there?" The men, known as the Freeman Field 101, were taken back to a jail at Godman Field. They remained in jail for twelve days. Cummings gave new president Harry S. Truman credit for their release. "We thought it was the end of the line, but President Truman did the right thing," Cummings said.

"We fought on both sides of the ocean. We fought on this side for civil rights," Cummings told an interviewer. "I am sure we did the right thing. To me and a lot of other people, it was the beginning of the civil rights movement," Cummings said. He also credited Eleanor Roosevelt and Thurgood Marshall, lead counsel for the NAACP and a future Supreme Court justice, for the effort to drop the charges of mutiny. It would be five decades later when the official letters of reprimand were purged from the personnel files of the Freeman Field 101.

Just weeks after they were freed, General Hap Arnold replaced all of the white officers in the 477th with black officers. Lt. Cummings was promoted to captain to command a bomber. The unit was temporarily assigned to Godman under the command of Col. Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., the former commander at Tuskegee and a graduate of West Point. Col. Davis was given the task of preparing the 477th for deployment to the Pacific theater where it would participate in the impending invasion of Japan. The dropping of the atomic bomb ended the war and the 477th never saw combat outside of the United States. After completing his four-year stint in the Army Air Corps, Cummings served in the Air Force Reserve and attained the rank of major before retiring after twenty years of service.

Cummings earned a commercial pilot's license, but never utilized it because there were virtually no opportunities for employment of black pilots. He went to work laying bricks in order to support his family and send his two daughters to college. Cummings and his second wife Mildred lived in their South Wayne Street home in Columbus until she died in 1988.

When he is able, Major Cummings appears at reunions and programs to honor the Tuskegee Airmen or to support aviation in general. He has never been bitter about his experiences in the military, stating instead that it wasn't too bad and nothing could keep a good man down.

On January 20, 2009, Major Cummings was a honored guest of President Barack Obama and invited to watch the historic inauguration of the first African-American President of the United States.

After a long and faithful life of service to his nation and his community, Major Cummings died of complications from lung surgery on July 2, 2009. His cremations were buried in Columbus, Ohio.

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