MIGHTY 25: 100-year-old Tuskegee Airman James Harvey has a legacy of service
Retired Lt. Colonel James Harvey III has seen a lot in his 100 years. His legacy of service to this nation, even in the face of adversity, inspires us all.
Born in New Jersey but raised in Pennsylvania, Harvey said he never experienced racism growing up even though his family was the only Black family in the area. He was the captain of his basketball team, participated in gymnastics and was his class valedictorian.
Despite his overwhelmingly positive experience growing up and at school, the military was still segregated.
“The part of the military I wanted to go into didn’t want me because of the color of my skin and that was the Air Force [Army Air Corps at the time],” he explained. “But three months later they drafted me into the Army in 1943 for World War II and off I went.”
Harvey had always dreamed of becoming a fighter pilot and applied for the Aviation Cadet Training Program after boot camp. In 1944, Harvey graduated from the Tuskegee Flight Program Army Air as a member of Class 44-4. He not only earned his wings but was commissioned as a second lieutenant.
By the time his combat training was over, the war had ended. The United States Army Air Corps assigned Harvey to 99th Fighter Squadron in Kentucky. Just four years later, it was now the Air Force and the Chief of Staff sent out a directive requesting all pilots' participation in an aerial weapons competition.
Harvey joined the 332nd Fighter Group Weapons three-member pilot team to compete at the U.S. Air Force's inaugural "Top Gun" team competition. His team outperformed every other group but largely went unrecognized for their efforts because they were Black. Months later, he and another Tuskegee pilot were sent to fly combat operations for the Korean War.
He was the first Black fighter pilot to engage in combat during the war.
“We got our orders and packed our bags for Masala, Japan. Prior to us leaving they sent our files to the Wing Commander and our pictures were inside. He told everyone there were ‘two Negro pilots coming in’ according to some of the pilots there. They all said no way would they fly with us,” Harvey shared. “I reported to the Wing Commander and he asked me what I wanted them to call me. I reminded him I was a First Lieutenant so that would be fine.”
Months later, he was the flight commander. Harvey was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for leading four F-80s amidst bad weather conditions during a bomber support mission in 1950 as well as a host of other medals. All together, he flew over 140 combat missions during the war.
After the war, Harvey served as the Assistant Operations Officer, Instrument Instructor Pilot and Aircraft Test Pilot in the 94th Fighter Interceptor Squadron at George Air Force Base in California. Later he’d become the fighter pilot training officer and the rating “Command Fighter Pilot." He retired in 1965 with 22 years of service to this nation.
Though Harvey attempted to obtain a position as a commercial pilot, he was turned down for what turned out to be racial reasons. He took a corporate sales position with Oscar Mayer and lived all over the country with his wife and four daughters.
When he retired in Denver in 1980, Harvey devoted his time to traveling the world with his wife. In 2007, he and all Tuskegee pilots were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal for their work which largely went unrecognized until then.
Harvey celebrated his 100th birthday on July 13, 2023. As he reflected on his life, he had some life advice to pass on to the world.
“My motto throughout life has always been do unto others as you would have done unto you. It’s important to have a sense of humor and tolerate feedback. If you go by those things it should turn out alright,” he smiled. “Laugh at everything. My wife and I used to love to have at least one good belly laugh every day. I just enjoy life and you should, too.”