Commemorative Air Force Blogs

Welcome to the Commemorative Air Force Blogs. A great way to stay informed about what is going on with the CAF.

The CAF Red Tail Squadron is a volunteer-driven organization dedicated to educating audiences across the country about the history and legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen, America’s first black military pilots and their support personnel. Learn more at

Portraits of Tuskegee Airmen: Robert Friend

The history and legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen is inspirational to people of all ages. Their life lessons can impart a special meaning for people from all walks of life. From a child in awe of a red-tailed airplane, to the elderly veteran full of gratitude for their fellow war heroes, there is something in each of their stories that can inspire us all to live better, fuller and braver lives.

One such hero is Robert Friend, one of the oldest living original Tuskegee Airmen pilots.  Born in Columbia, South Carolina in 1920, Friend was interested in aviation from a young age. He read stories of World War I pilots in old magazines and made his own makeshift airplanes for imaginative play. Friend had wanted to enlist in the Army to fly for our country, but was turned away. Even though the country was making preparations for war, black Americans could not join the Armed Forces to serve as pilots.

While a student at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania – the first historically black college to grant college degrees – he took aviation-related courses. When the Civilian Pilot Training Program began in 1939 for college students, Friend eagerly applied and was accepted. He completed the program and earned his private pilot’s license. But this was only the first step to becoming a military pilot. When the program opened an opportunity for a segregated pilot training program at Tuskegee, Friend finally had his chance to join the war effort and earn his wings for his country.

Robert Friend young photoAfter successfully completing all phases of training, he was commissioned as an officer in the U.S. Army Air Corps, and assigned to the 301st Fighter Squadron of the 332nd Fighter Group. By that time, the country had officially entered the war. When he deployed overseas, Friend was first sent to North Africa, then to the Europe Theater as a Combat Operations Officer at the squadron and group levels. He was responsible for planning and organizing the implementation of strategic and tactical air missions.

He was a skilled pilot in the P-47 and P-51 aircraft. He flew wing man for Benjamin O. Davis Jr., who would later go on to be come the first black general of the United States Air Force. He flew 142 combat missions in World War II. His service extended in several other capacities during the Korean and Vietnam wars. He finished his education at the Air Force Institution of Technology.

His career with the Air Force included serving as Assistant Deputy of Launch Vehicles, working on important space launch vehicles such as the Titan, Atlas and Delta rockets and the Space Shuttle. He served as a Foreign Technology Program Director where he identified and monitored research and development programs related to national security. He was also the Director of the Unidentified Aerial Phenomena Program, tasked with investigating unidentified flying objects.

After retiring from the military, his expertise was utilized to oversee the design and production of space products for the Space Shuttle program, lead a company that creates components for the International Space Station and other satellite systems, and direct the research and development for USAF weapons and missile programs.

When Friend was in the air during World War II, he flew a P-51D Mustang, slightly different from our P-51C model. A D model, painted up with his original “Bunny” bathing beauty, has been on static display at the Palm Springs Air Museum for a number of years, but had an extensive overhaul to make it airworthy once again, taking it’s first flight in decades in February 2015.

Although identical, this particular aircraft was not the one Friend flew, but was built near the end of the war and never saw combat. It’s almost certain that the P-51D Friend piloted himself never made it back to the states. When the war ended, it was too much trouble to return many of the combat aircraft to the U.S. and they were commonly scrapped in Europe, or if they were returned to the states they were sold to civilians for very little.

Also of credit to this inspirational Tuskegee Airman, Friend is an active participant in Ride 2 Recovery, cycling events that benefit mental and physical rehabilitation programs for our country’s wounded veterans. Friend himself has ridden in the events, and plays a large role in helping to bring awareness to the program.FullSizeRender

Want to try to keep up with this active veteran? Follow him on Facebook to see what he’s up to and where he will be next.

Lt Col Friend, we salute you for your decades of service to our country, and for inspiring future generations to pursue their dreams and make a difference, just like you and your fellow Tuskegee Airmen.


The CAF Red Tail Squadron is a volunteer-driven organization dedicated to educating audiences across the country about the history and legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen, America’s first black military pilots and their support personnel. Learn more at

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Units team up to bring inspiration to school in need

In April, several CAF units hit the road for Kansas City, Missouri to bring their message to a school that was especially in need of the kind of inspiration only CAF can provide. The team effort included Vice President of Education Bill Shepard and members of the new Red Bird Squadron, Heart of America Wing and Red Tail Squadron. Shepard was particularly eager to bring the program back to an area he used to call home, and infuse a local school in need with this important piece of history.

Leaders and volunteers from Friendship Baptist Church set out last fall on a “Power of Positive Change” campaign for George Melcher Elementary, organizing programs to help improve the overall culture of the school. Their efforts were based around the Red Tail Squadron’s Six Guiding Principles, based on the life lessons of the Tuskegee Airmen. The CAF’s special event was the pinnacle of the church’s work at the school this academic year.

Dr. Merlyne Starr, longtime supporter of the Red Tail Squadron and volunteer at Friendship Baptist Church, is credited with the idea behind the campaign, building it upon the Six Guiding Principles and inviting the CAF to participate in the final event.

What better way to educate and inspire students to rise above their own obstacles, just like the Tuskegee Airmen, than to bring the excitement of aviation direct to their doorstep! Students were treated to attention-grabbing activities like CAF’s interactive C-47 That’s All Brother cockpit simulator. Stepping inside, students got a sense of what it’s like to be in command of a real cockpit, in an aircraft that led the Allies in the invasion of Normandy. The RISE ABOVE Traveling Exhibit’s mobile panoramic movie theater gave them the sights and sounds of the Tuskegee Airmen and their aircraft.

“CAF units worked together to expose these kids to something they have never seen before and most likely would not have access to,” said Shepard. “Melcher Elementary is a school with some of the greatest challenges, and it was an honor to partner with the volunteers of Friendship Baptist Church and support their program to help change the culture and future of this school. We both believe in the power of the Tuskegee Airmen to inspire students to rise above their own obstacles and achieve success.”

The event’s organizers were impressed not only by what CAF brought for the students, but by their dedication and enthusiasm.

“The CAF volunteers and staff had a wonderful attitude about working with our youth,” said Dr. Mary Long, co-chair of the Positive Change Campaign and owner of the Kansas City-based Diversified Leadership International. “They were so friendly and focused on their interactions with the children. We observed our students realize new goals and dreams for themselves, and change their way of thinking.”

Melcher students rotated through six unique stations designed to emphasize the lessons of the Tuskegee Airmen, including CAF’s new “Flight Plan for Life” activity. Based on the premise that every pilot needs to have a well organized and thought out plan in order to have a successful mission, so does a young person. This goal-setting activity helped the students create a path to success while articulating their life goals.

“Our Wing understands the need and importance of educational outreach, and the opportunity to be involved in this event fit perfectly with that,” said Jarrett Bertoncin, PIO and Safety Officer for the Heart of America Wing. “We are building out our own education program, and working on follow-up plans at the school. We’re hopeful to tie in the Air Power History Tour with these students and the Rise Above message.”

Actor Willie Minor, of the HBO original film “Tuskegee Airmen,” also made a special appearance and brought another rousing element to the event. He gave the kids a fantastic real-life message about being a “champ or a chump”…. and the only difference is “u”! Members of the Kansas City chapter of the Black Pilots of America were also on hand to guide the students and share their perspectives.

“We are very excited about the opportunity to share how the Tuskegee Airmen have shaped American history,” said Melcher Elementary Principal Patricia Hayes. “The program taught valuable principles – like always believe in yourself, never quit, don’t be afraid to think – to our students in a unique, inspirational format.”

The CAF Red Tail Squadron is a volunteer-driven organization dedicated to educating audiences across the country about the history and legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen, America’s first black military pilots and their support personnel. Learn more at

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Profiles of Tuskegee Airmen: William Holloman

The passion that fills one’s heart for aviation can be a powerful force. Since the age of four, William Holloman wanted to fly, and that lust for the freedom of the skies stayed with him until adulthood, leading him to a long and prosperous career in the military. His illustrious time in the service and the extremes of racism that he experienced fueled his volunteer service in retirement. He spent years educating as many people as he could about the history of the Tuskegee Airmen, inspiring them to identify and achieve their own lofty goals.

Holloman was born August 21, 1924 in St. Louis. Growing up, he was fascinated by airplanes. He was known to regularly walk two miles to a local airfield to watch the aircraft takeoff and land. He was hooked, and no amount of unjust racial stereotypes or discrimination was going to keep him out of the cockpit.

In August of 1942, Holloman completed his aviation cadet exam and began training to become what are known today as the Tuskegee Airmen. He graduated from training at Tuskegee and received his wings from the U.S. Air Corps in September of 1944. Assigned to the 99th Fighter Squadron, he flew 19 missions out of the segregated air base in Ramitelli, Italy in 1944 and 1945. Protecting bombers, strafing targets on the ground and engaging in fighter sweeps was done with great skill in his P-51. He went to war to serve his country, but to also fulfill his dream to be an airman, flying and fighting from the air.

He has said that he didn’t fully understand at the time how racist our country was when he was a young man, because growing up he didn’t feel the sting of that injustice until he was older. During the war, his fighter group was segregated in Ramitelli, the white bomber crews they were heralded for protecting stationed elsewhere. In an interview with Smithsonian’s Air & Space Magazine in 2007, Holloman remembers the significance of that separation.

“When we went to town, we had lots of contact with them. In Italy, we were all stationed separately but within 25 or 30 miles of each other. They embraced us when we went to town. They wouldn’t let us buy our own drinks. They were very friendly. We were all brothers in arms in a combat area,” he said. “Segregation didn’t show itself until we got back to American soil. You get off the boat, and it’s all right there. I don’t think that I really hated the social structure of the United States until I came back from Italy. It was kind of sad.”

After World War II, Holloman didn’t stop flying. He took jobs that included crop dusting in Central America and flying for a regional commercial airline in Canada. With the country drawn shortly after into the Korean War, Holloman was called back to service, attending airborne electronics school then becoming the first black helicopter pilot in the United States Air Force.

He was again activated in 1966 for the Vietnam War. He became a leading instrument examiner, check pilot and director of safety and standards. Holloman retired from the service as a Lieutenant Colonel in 1972, designated as a Master Aviator with 17,000 flight hours in military aircraft, an impressive feat at any standard. Listen to Holloman talk about his memories from his time as a pilot in an interview with the Planes of Fame Air Museum shortly before his passing.

After his four decades of service, Holloman dedicated much time and effort to speaking out and organizing events to bring attention to the history of the Tuskegee Airmen, who had little widespread recognition before the Hollywood adaptations of their story. Among many activities and appearances, he was active in the Tuskegee Airmen, Inc. organization, was a technical advisor for the film “Red Tails,” and provided a great deal of research assistance to the historical reference book The Tuskegee Airmen: An Illustrated History.

He also earned degrees in business administration from the University of Maryland and in history from the University of Washington. The Seattle area became his home, and he developed a very close relationship with their Museum of Flight. There he helped develop the museum’s Tuskegee Airmen exhibit and participated in numerous panels to educate people about the Tuskegee Airmen, veterans issues and the history of black Americans in the military. His original flight jacket is also proudly displayed in Seattle’s Northwest African American Museum.

CAF Red Tail Squadron P-51C Mustang pilot Alan Miller had the distinct pleasure of spending time with Holloman and enjoying his friendship for many years. Holloman was very close with original Tuskegee Airman Alexander Jefferson, both sharing details of their service and experiences as Tuskegee Airmen with Miller.

“Bill was the life of the party everywhere he went,” remembers Miller. “He and Alex were often found together, and now Alex speaks for both of them. He is carrying the torch to make sure others know about the amazing lives they and the other Tuskegee Airmen led, and how we can all learn from their experience.”

Holloman may have retired from the military, but in a sense he never stopped serving his country. His personal dedication to educating and inspiring others through the important history of the Tuskegee Airmen left an impact on the audiences he reached.

Holloman passed away in 2010, leaving behind his wife Adele and their six children and many grandchildren. Lt Col Holloman, we salute you for your service.

The CAF Red Tail Squadron is a volunteer-driven organization dedicated to educating audiences across the country about the history and legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen, America’s first black military pilots and their support personnel. Learn more at

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Monument set to honor resting place of brothers who were Tuskegee Airmen pilots

Among the family and friends laid to rest in the Alton, Illinois, town cemetery, war heroes and brothers George and Arnold Cisco hold a unique distinction, tucked away unnoticed for decades. They both served in World War II as part of the famed Tuskegee Airmen, our nation’s first black military pilots and their support personnel. After all these years, members of the Alton community want to ensure their service - and the mark it left on history - will be honored and remembered for future generations.

The Tuskegee Airmen Cisco Memorial Committee of Alton has been leading a crowdfunding campaign to commission an upright granite memorial to the men. Unfortunately, the obscure, flat gravestones that currently mark their resting place do not give any indication of their important service as Tuskegee Airmen. Their project aims to change that with a monument that will include their images and that of the infamous fighter aircraft they flew in the war, educating and inspiring people about the legendary Tuskegee Airmen.

Committee members include local residents Charlie Baird, United States Army veteran; Eugene Jones Baldwin, a researcher and interviewer in the Department of the Interior’s National Tuskegee Airmen Oral History Project; Lorenzo Small, nephew of George and Alton Cisco; and members and staff of the Alton Museum of History and Art.

“The Cisco brothers had remained relatively unknown for 70 years and it is well past time they got the recognition they deserve,” said Brian Combs, president of the Alton Museum of History and Art. “Our museum has labored a long time to preserve our community’s history and bring an appreciation to the stories and contributions of people like George and Arnold Cisco.”

Alton’s black heritage includes helping slaves find safety in their free state. Its proximity to the Mississippi River made it an important part of the Underground Railroad, and is part of nine such sites in the region. The graves of the Cisco brothers are near the tomb and monument of Elijah P. Lovejoy, an outspoken abolitionist who was a minister and owner of the Alton Observer. In 1847, Lovejoy was killed by a pro-slavery mob that destroyed his printing press in an attempt to hinder abolitionist writings.

The monument is expected to be unveiled June 3, 2017, although efforts are ongoing to raise the last of the funds needed to finish the project. Those interested in contributing can visit their crowdfunding site to learn more and make a donation. Honoring the Cisco brothers is an important step towards shining a light on an important and overlooked piece of local history.

To help educate the community about the Tuskegee Airmen and the Cisco Brothers, the Alton Museum of History and Art hosted a free screening of “In Their Own Words: The Tuskegee Airmen” in early March. Additional events and fanfare are planned to mark the unveiling of the monument in June, including another opportunity for the community to view the film.

George and Arnold Cisco were born in 1918 and 1920 respectively and raised in Jerseyville with their parents, Roscoe and Flora Cisco, and younger brother Harlow. The rural town was just 20 miles north of Alton. Their father was a well-known musician in the area, playing piano and teaching music.

The two brothers graduated with honors from Jerseyville High School and went on to earn degrees from the University of Illinois where they were both members of the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity.

All three sons served their country in the armed forces. George had enlisted in the Army and graduated from officer training school as a second lieutenant in 1943. He was originally assigned to the 761st Tank Battalion, a segregated unit. He transferred to the U.S. Army Air Corps and earned his wings as a Tuskegee Airman on May 23, 1944.

George CiscoTragically, at age 26, George was killed in a training accident before he ever served overseas, and was the first person of color from Jersey County to lose his life in the war effort. During a routine training mission on August 16, 1944, George’s aircraft was on the runway at an airfield in Walterboro, South Carolina, when it was struck by another plane coming in for a landing. He left behind his wife, Claire, and their infant daughter, Donna.

Arnold earned his wings as a Tuskegee Airman and was assigned to the 99th Pursuit Squadron, eventually deployed to Ramitelli Air Base in Italy. There he flew the infamous P-51 Mustang fighter in ground strafing and bomber escort missions. His wartime service earned him the Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medal with Oak Leaf Clusters, World War II Victory Medal, American Campaign Medal and the European–African–Middle Eastern Campaign Medal.

In another tragic turn of fate for the Cisco family, Arnold was tragically killed at the young age of 26 during military leave to visit his family. On May 19, 1946, the transport plane he was on hit power lines during a storm and crashed near Tuskegee, Alabama. He had been in Chicago to visit his wife, Hinnie, who was pregnant at the time with their son, and was on his way back to Tuskegee where he was to be promoted to the rank of Major before returning to fight overseas.Arnold Cisco 

Because the family lost two of their three children to the war, their youngest son, Harlow, was honorably discharged after three years of service in the Army when the Korean War broke out. According to the Sole Survivor policy that was enacted in 1948, the military was compelled to excuse a family’s sole survivor from active service during wartime.

The history of the Cisco family is a lesson in service, sacrifice and determination to press on in the face of great adversity. The community of Alton and Jerseyville will proudly erect their monument so these forgotten heroes can stand as a beacon of inspiration and courage.

The CAF Red Tail Squadron salutes George and Arnold Cisco, and remembers the great sacrifice of their family.

The CAF Red Tail Squadron is a volunteer-driven organization dedicated to educating audiences across the country about the history and legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen, America’s first black military pilots and their support personnel. Learn more at

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Profiles of Tuskegee Airmen: Dr. Fenton Sands

Screen Shot 2017 03 22 at 11.47.59 AMDefying expectations is a hallmark of the Tuskegee Airmen. It may seem unusual that a kid from the urban metropolis of New York City would emerge as an international agricultural expert, but original Tuskegee Airmen Dr. Fenton sands did just that, and much more. He would grow up to leave those crowded city streets for the Ivy League, serve his country, and go on to dedicate his post-war civilian career to people all over the world. Like other inspirational Tuskegee Airmen, Sands has left his mark on history.

Although Sands was born in Harlem in 1918, his family originally emigrated to the U.S. from the Bahamas to find better opportunities for work and education. The sentiment “Get an education!” ran strong in their family. The children knew that, no matter what, this was their path forward. Sands hit that first milestone in 1936, graduating from Stuyvesant High School, one of the best high schools in New York City at the time.

Now called Jackie Robinson Park, Sands was inspired by Colonial Park, 10 blocks of open space in Harlem that sparked his curious nature. Growing up across this street from this gem where city met nature, his love for science took root, eventually leading him to Cornell to study agriculture. He was defying odds – a black man from the big city majoring in agriculture at a rural and predominantly white college.

He studied hard at Cornell, learned to farm, worked for a power company, and was a resident of the now-famous Telluride House. Still in existence today, the Telluride House is a unique community of Cornell scholars – undergraduate, graduate and faculty – passionate about intellectual engagement, democratic self-governance, and community living. Within this setting, Sands was afforded a rich and intense academic experience. He graduated in 1942 with a Bachelor of Science in Agriculture, majoring in horticulture and agronomy, the science of soil management and crop production. He was the first in his family to earn a college degree.

While still at Cornell, Sands applied to the U.S. Army Air Corps’ new flight training program for black men because of his interest in aviation. He also wanted the opportunity to do something worthwhile for his country that was previously restricted from black Americans. Many people in the country, like Sands, were eager to join the war effort, and wanted the chance to do so regardless of the color of their skin, in critical roles where their skills and education could make a marked difference in fighting the enemy.

In June of 1942, Sands passed the examination needed to qualify as a cadet in the Air Corps to the great delight and pride of his entire family. By December he was assigned to pre-flight training at the Army Air Force Advanced Flying Training School in Tuskegee, Alabama and his future in aviation was set in motion.

As a cadet, Sands was a part of the now iconic picture with then New York City mayor Firello LaGuardia with the first class of black aviation navigation cadets who would go on to fly bombers. The group was heralded on this historic visit to New York and many flocked to see them in a parade, amazed at the prospect of black Americans flying aircraft in the war effort.

Sands was commissioned as an officer February of 1944. By June he completed bombardier training and was later assigned to the 477th Bombardier Group, becoming a member of a unique, select group of black navigators-bombardiers, the first of their kind in the military.

The war ended before the 477th was deployed overseas and Sands was honorably discharged in December of 1945 and shortly after married Dorothy Holder. The two moved to Africa in 1946, working as missionaries in Liberia to help re-open and revitalize the church-run Cuttington College. Sands would work on the school’s agricultural program, and during that time their two first children were born.

Sands and his family returned to the states so he could pursue a doctorate, and in 1954 he graduated from Cornell once again, this time with a PhD in agriculture. With their third child born during this time, the growing family once again returned to Africa where Sands served as Cuttington’s Vice President and Director of Agriculture. Later he would go on to take an assignment with his family in Nigeria.

His important work in agriculture expanded to work with USAID and the World Bank, serving in such locations as South Sudan, Sudan, Mexico, Peru, Ecuador, Columbia, the Virgin Islands, Morocco, Tunisia, Madagascar, Greece, South Yemen, North Yemen, Oman, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Vietnam, Thailand and the Phillippines. He retired in 1982.

Dr. and Mrs. Sands continued to explore and travel the world in their retirement, and joined several civic organizations. He was a member of the General “Chappie” James chapter of Tuskegee Airmen, Inc., mentoring young people through his inspirational military service and civilian career experience.

Sands passed away in 1998. His commitment to education and life’s work inspired all three of his children and seven grandchildren attended college. For a more detailed account of his life and to see photos and original documents from him time as a Tuskegee Airmen and working around the world, read “A Tuskegee Airman and Much More” by his son, Fenton Sands Jr.

We salute you, Dr. Sands, for your service and worthy contributions to make our world a better place. RISE ABOVE!

The CAF Red Tail Squadron is a volunteer-driven organization dedicated to educating audiences across the country about the history and legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen, America’s first black military pilots and their support personnel. Learn more at

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