Retired lieutenant colonel George Hardy, 87, helped break down military racial barriers as a Tuskegee Airman, a topic he’ll be talking about at a Black History event called ‘They Dared to Fly’ in Lakeland.
By Josh Rojas
A Tuskegee Airman, retired lieutenant colonel George Hardy, 87, fought fascism in World War II and helped break down racial barriers in the American military.
“When I went into the service in ‘43, racial segregation was rigidly enforced,” Hardy said. “No fraternization, that is, mixing with races. So, we were completely segregated at Tuskegee and even overseas.”
Hardy said he was only 18 when he learned how to be a fighter pilot in Tuskegee, Alabama.
“It’s in those towns that you know what hatred is when you’d see some of us come-in in uniform and whites in the town look at you and you see the hatred in their eyes,” he said. “It’s just something you never forget.”
Hardy began his career as a second lieutenant in the all-black 99th Fighter Squadron, escorting bombers over Germany during the war in a P-51 “Mustang” fighter plane.
“This airplane could go with the bombers as far as they had to go. Take them to the target and bring them back,” Hardy said. “The P-51 was a real airplane.”
After flying 21 missions, he left the Air Force in 1946 to pursue an engineering degree at New York University. He was asked to come back in 1949 and was assigned to the 19th Bomb Group in Guam.
“I was the only colored person in the group,” Hardy said. “I was a maintenance officer supervising about 30 airmen, all white.”
Hardy said the racial barriers were starting to come down, but he still experienced discrimination during the Korean War when a new squadron commander would not allow him to fly.
“I was in the right seat cockpit going through my checklist and I hear someone say, ‘Hardy, get down out of the airplane.’ He pulled me down and replaced me. He didn’t want me flying.”
Hardy said that B-29 “Superfortress” bomber ended up being shot down during the flight.
“The airplane with my crew on board was shot down over North Korea,” he said.
“It was attacked by two fighters, the engine set on fire, and they couldn’t put it out. So, all had to bail out.”
Hardy said two airmen were captured and later died in a prison camp.
The bomber commander and the rest of the crew were rescued.
”That was the first B-29 shot down. When the aircraft commander got back, he said, ‘George, if you’d been there, I don’t think it would’ve happened,’” Hardy said.
The squadron commander who wouldn’t let Hardy fly was replaced a short time later.
“His replacement put me back on flying again,” he said. “So, I got to fly my 45 missions over Korea.”
Ten years later, Hardy said he ended up working again for that same squadron commander, and his attitude toward Blacks had changed.
“He’s now a full colonel, and he was my immediate boss,” Hardy said. “I couldn’t have a commanding officer who treated me any better than he did. Somehow he had made a change as far as I was concerned.”
Hardy also flew 70 missions during the Vietnam War as pilot of an AC-119 “Stinger” Gunship.
Hardy retired as a lieutenant colonel after serving 28-years in the military. He was part of a group of Tuskegee Airmen who were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 2007.
He vividly remembers what President George W. Bush said at the time to the group: “For most of the salutes you didn’t get, I salute you.”
Looking back, Hardy is proud of the role he played helping break down racial barriers in the military as one of the nation’s first Black pilots.
“When I left the service, it was a completely different service, as far as race is concerned,” he said. “I feel fortunate I was able to experience all of this, to see the change in this country.”