Tuskegee airman explains early training of black pilots

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During the black history panel Feb. 6 in Room 218 of nursing, retired USAF Lt. Col. Ethel Singleton says that most people assume when they hear veterans, it is associated with men. Singleton finds it important to bring awareness to women in the military today. S.M. Huron-Dixon

Black History Month continues with Taste of Caribbean and The Dating Game.

Deandra Gonzalez


Ralph “Rick” Sinkfield, president of the San Antonio Chapter–Tuskegee Airmen, said the main reasons the U.S. Army Air Corps recruited the Tuskegee airmen in 1941 were the inequalities African-Americans faced and the need for more pilots in World War II.

Sinkfield and five other war veterans spoke about experiences and challenges of military service on a panel at the opening ceremony of Black History Month Feb. 6 in the nursing complex.

Yvonne Campbell, research specialist in the creative multimedia department and member of the Black History Month Committee, introduced the theme of this year’s observation, African-Americans in Times of War. Campbell was the facilitator for the panel.

Other panelists were James Bynum, 97-year-old World War II veteran and original member of the Tuskegee Airmen in 1941; Billy Gordon, president of the Bexar County Buffalo Soldiers; Turner McGarity, Vietnam War veteran; Lt. Col. Ethel Singleton, retired from the U.S. Air Force; and Tracey Yeomans, retired U.S. Army major and member of Women Veterans of San Antonio.

The Tuskegee airmen were the first group of African-American pilots to fight in World War II.

“There was a big fight over segregation in the U.S., and it was a big struggle to become part of the American culture,” he said. “We got a lot of black press that really got into the political nature of the country, letting them know the inequalities that were happening of the time.”

Congress passed laws, including the Draft and the Civilian Pilot Training Program, to create the Tuskegee airmen.

Sinkfield said the Civilian Pilot Training Program of 1938 was passed to flight-train civilians and prepare them if needed as military pilots.

“We had to have somebody interested in training black pilots,” he said.

Sinkfield said part of that law was to have one historically black college to train the pilots. The pilots were trained at the Tuskegee Army Air Field and went to college at Tuskegee University in Tuskegee, Ala.  

Sinkfield said white instructor pilots, female nurses and support staff were at Tuskegee to help and train nearly 1,000 pilots. 

Singleton said she wanted to join the Air Force because in 1982-83 there was a mini-depression, and it was hard to find a job.

She said her husband was a commissioned officer, which made it harder to find a long-term occupation despite having a master’s degree in sociology.

“They would say automatically ‘Oh your husband is in the military so you’re not going to be here long,’ so they denied to employ me,” Singleton said.

Singleton said she wasn’t happy because she was a woman and had a degree but was being penalized because her husband was in the military. Two years later, she joined and served 20 years in the Air Force. 

Yeomans, who served 22 years, said the Women Veterans of San Antonio is a nonprofit organization started in 2013.

The group has 648 female veterans and has no physical location but meets at coffee shops, wine-tastings and events such as 5K runs. The group socializes, networks and donates to homeless female veterans. 

“When you hear the word veterans, a lot of the time in society we think of our male veterans,” Yeoman said. “They don’t necessarily think of women veterans, so this group brings women veterans together from all branches.”

Yeomans said the group gives back to the community by volunteering at Veterans Stand Down, which happens every year before Veterans Day. 

Veterans Stand Down provides medical services, hot food, clothing and haircuts for homeless veterans.

This year’s Veterans Stand Down will be 10 a.m. Nov. 9 at 611 N. Flores St.

The Women Veterans of San Antonio donates socks, lanyards, gloves, first aid kits, bras, underwear and hygiene products.


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