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Christmas With the Tuskegee Airmen

By Chris Henry, EAA Lifetime 41434, EAA Museum Programs Representative

December 22, 2016 - For most of us the holidays are centered around getting together with friends and family and spending time with folks you love. During World War II, holidays were just another day. Some units would have a party if operations allowed and others would work through it like any other day. Then there were some who would have a special story to remember from their holidays abroad. Twenty-year-old Jim Scheib would normally celebrate Christmas in his home town of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. There, he might be found taking in the Kaufman’s Department Store Christmas windows or the Horne’s Christmas tree. But the holiday season of 1944 found Jim far from those sights of the steel town in the middle of Italy. He was assigned to the 485th Bomb Group, 831st Bomb Squadron as a copilot on a B-24 Liberator named Tail Heavy.  

On November 17, 1944, his aircraft was struck by a piece of flack fired from a German anti-aircraft gun. The jagged piece of metal struck the oxygen system that supported almost half of the crew. Four of the crew including the pilot passed out due to the lack of oxygen. With the pilot knocked out, Jim was forced to make a split second decision. He could stay with the formation, which was the safest choice as the formation gave protection against enemy fighters, but it would prove fatal for the men off of oxygen. His second option, which was the more dangerous choice, was to leave the formation and descend to a lower altitude where everyone could breathe. This meant becoming a sitting duck for enemy aircraft as they would be all alone. Jim went for the second option because it was the only one that gave his entire crew a fighting chance. “I started a power dive from 25,000 feet,” Jim said. “As I broke through 15,000 the guys who had blacked out started coming around.” Separated from the rest of his squadron, the crew of Tail Heavy was all alone and very vulnerable to attacks. He felt it would be any moment that the enemy fighters would arrive, so he had his crew put on their parachutes and be ready to jump. “When the first guy has to jump, we all jump.” As Jim made that announcement on the radio intercom the top turret gunner tapped him on the shoulder and pointed out at their wing. There, was the most welcome sight a bomber crew could have. A P-51 Mustang had pulled up on their wing to give them an escort. “It was about the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. It was this shiny, polished P-51 with a bright red tail,” Jim recalled. The crew knew that the aircraft belonged to the 332nd Fighter Group, which was the famed Tuskegee Airmen. They were the first African-American fighter unit. On their other wing, a P-38 Lightning had joined up. “We went from being the most vulnerable to the most protected. No one would dare attack us.” This was Jim’s first encounter with the 332nd, but the next would be even more memorable.

December 29, 1944, found the men of the 831st Squadron hitting rail yards in Northern Italy. On the flight back home they received word that a massive snow storm had hit the base and that the steel runway was covered in snow. There was no way for them to safely land and they had to find an alternate. The squadron of 17 B-24 Liberators was diverted to Ramitelli Airfield, Italy. This was the home of the Tuskegee Airmen. After landing they were told that it would be a few days before they could recover all of the aircraft and that they were to remain where they were. “We were moved in to quarters with the Tuskegee pilots,” Jim said. “We would share their homes for the next five days. I was put in with one pilot from Kansas City. After a few minutes we started talking about airplanes and just like any other group of pilots, there was an instant bond. Over our stay they shared packages that were arriving from home with special items like Christmas cookies. You have to remember that packages from home were like gold. For them to share them was really special.” Everyone had a great experience and a few days later they boarded their bombers and departed with an open invite to come back any time. 

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