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Getting Shot Down

Back to Reality

Annotation

[Annotator’s Note: Interviewer is attempting to level out the audio at the beginning of the interview.] Alexander Jefferson was born on 15 November 1921 in Detroit, Michigan. Jefferson does not remember being hungry. His dad worked for a foundry that was a mile and a half from Jefferson. The company was Detroit Lubricators and Jefferson’s father worked in the factory. During the Depression they ate steak almost every other day. People say they were hungry, but Jefferson was never hungry. They were the only black family in a Polish neighborhood. Jefferson has no idea how his family afforded the house. His elementary formative years were interesting. He went to Newbury Elementary School. After school some days he would walk by to a small airfield where Jefferson had his first encounter with airplanes. He read magazines about World War I and the Flying Circus. He was inspired by the magazines and made model airplanes. By the time he finished college, the Army Air Corps accepted blacks, in 1941. Jefferson finished Clark College in Atlanta Georgia in 1942 after Pearl Harbor. The Army was looking for people to go to Tuskegee Army Airfield. Jefferson was qualified passed and went to Tuskegee in April 1943. Jefferson went home to Detroit in 1942. Instead of being drafted, he became a Quartermaster. He took the Army exam and was told his name would be put on a list. From June 1942 until April 1943, Jefferson attended Howard University for chemistry. He wanted to be an organic research chemist. He was called to Tuskegee in April 1943 and left college. Jefferson joined class 44A and graduated as 2nd Lieutenant in January 1944. He stayed at Tuskegee for one month flying P-40s as 2nd Lieutenant. He transferred to Selfridge Air Force Base. Three squadrons had been formed; the 99th in North Africa and three other formed flying P-39s patrolling Italy. Jefferson was replacement pilot for P-39 in Selfridge. Jefferson was kicked out of Selfridge Field for integrating the Officers’ Club. March 1944 to April 1944, he was sent to Walterboro, South Carolina for three weeks. Jefferson was sent overseas as a replacement pilot for the 301st Fighter Squadron.

Annotation

Alexander Jefferson traveled from Walterboro to Hampton Roads, Virginia by boat across the ocean to Naples. From Naples, he traveled by truck across Italy to Ramitelli. The morning of the last P-47 mission Jefferson and 15 other members watched a P-47 crash on the runway. Jefferson was not afraid because the men blamed the pilot for the crash. Jefferson was in a tent with Elsberry [Annotator’s Note: Joseph D. Elsberry], Faulkner [Annotator’s Note: William J. Faulkner], and Dickson [Annotator’s Note: Lawrence E. Dickson]. Elsberry had four victories. Faulkner died in the Alps due to the lack of oxygen. [Annotator’s Note: Jefferson was confused about the name of Dickson and called him Robert Daniels until he corrected himself; expressed confusion.] Dickson killed himself. Class 44K assigned to go to the line to check on a plane and fly three or four hours. [Annotator’s note: Jefferson lost his train of thought and was confused about where he was in the story.] His senior got in the plane first and the mechanic showed him the gears. He flew around and buzzed the field around them rolling in the air and crashed the plane which killed him. The men found out later he never read the tank orders. The tank behind the pilot was full, causing the center of gravity to be off. Jefferson accomplished his transitional flight. After that he flew 18 long range missions, escorted the B-17 to B-24s from Italy to France and Italy to Germany and Italy to Floresti and Italy to Greece. Jefferson’s 19th mission was strafing radar stations from the coast of southern France. The 301st had a target outside the city of Douaumont France on the coast. Jefferson was told to destroy the radar towers by flying over them and shoot them with the 50- caliber guns on the plane wings. There were four flights in the 301st. [Annotator’s Note: Jefferson confused by flight names.] Signs were called “Bubble, Doorknob, and Counter.” Jefferson’s was “Bubble Blue 4” meaning he is “Tail End Charlie” [Annotator’s Note: last in the formation].

Annotation

Alexander Jefferson’s plane name was “Bubble Blue Subsoil” [Annotator’s Note: Jefferson became quiet and was lost in thought]. The four plane names were “Red,” “White,” “Bubble,” and “Blue.” The first flight was “Red.” “Red” came over 15,000 feet on the target. The radar towers were about 200 feet off the water. The first, second, and third flight came through. Jefferson’s plane was the last. As his plane came through, he had trouble getting rid of his tanks. He had to catch up to get in formation and began firing at the radar stations. He hit the target and the shell backfired and came through the cockpit, creating a hole above Jefferson. Through nine months of pilot training, they never taught the men how to escape an aircraft. He pulled the stick upwards to ascend and the plane nose popped open and Jefferson pulled off his belt as the tail flew off the plane. He quickly pulled the ring to release the parachute as he hit the trees. His fellow pilots saw his plane go down, but did not see Jefferson leave the plane so he was reported KIA and his parents received a KIA. A German man found him in the trees as he was trying to get out of his parachute. They saluted him when the Germans saw his gold bar on his uniform. Jefferson was escorted to their German commanding officer who addressed him as Lieutenant. He answered the German officer in name, rank, and serial number: “Alexander Jefferson 2nd Lieutenant 085161.” The German officer discussed Atlanta, Georgia; and Washington, DC; and Howard University; and Detroit. The officer graduated from the University of Michigan in 1936 and went back to Germany and was placed in charge of field artillery. He was waiting for the war to be over so he could return to the United States. Jefferson was there for about four or five hours. The Germans brought in Robert Daniels who landed his plane on the water instead of evacuating when he was hit. The two were escorted by German guards through France by truck and cart and wagon while living off the land. They picked up Robert Macon in Avignon from the 99th with a broken back and collarbone. They were officially interrogated in Frankfurt on the Main. Macon was put in the hospital and was not seen until they all returned to the United States. Daniels and Jefferson were transported by train across Germany to Poland to Stalag Luft III in August. He was assigned Barracks Eight in a room with three other men. They were there for about five or six months until January. The Russians came during the winter and the prisoners were forced to walk. The guards were old men who were terrified of the Russians. About four miles in the old guards had to put their guns in the wagon so they could continue walking. The men arrived in Spremberg where they were assigned into 40 and 8s [Annotator’s Note: box cars]. Forty men with eight horses. It took them two days to get to Stalag VIIA near Munich where they stayed until General Patton’s Third Army came through and liberated the camp. That was a momentous day for Jefferson.

Annotation

Alexander Jefferson came in the middle of the Tuskegee program. The first program was March 1942 and the last class was March 1946. Jefferson came out January 1944. Tuskegee Army Air field was ten miles away from the Institute. They hired the black civilians to teach flying. The officers at Tuskegee Army Air field were white because no blacks had been in the Army long enough to become an officer. The instructors in primary were black and the instructors in basic and advanced were white. Jefferson considered them heroes because many sacrificed careers to be basic commanders. The washout rate was high at Tuskegee. Of the 120 men who began training only 25 graduated. Some men could not fly and some men could not hold themselves mentally. Jefferson did not want to work as a private where he only made 21 dollars a month. Cadets made 75 dollars a month. Jefferson became a 2nd Lieutenant in nine months, receiving his gold bar and set of wings. He made 250 dollars a month as a pilot. Jefferson admitted it was a challenge to stay in training. Some men were eliminated days before graduation. One man went to sleep with his name on the graduating board and woke up with a red line through his name. He was eliminated for the benefit of the government. His family was there and the uniform was already bought but he was washed out just before graduation. Jefferson considers that a horrible thought. Some men suffered psychological and emotional damage. Jefferson only visited the town of Tuskegee once and met the Sheriff who was Pat Evans. Jefferson had traveled in the south, but never traveled downtown because of racism. Jefferson knew racism and segregation to know where to stop for gas and food and where not to stop.

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Alexander Jefferson named his plane “Margot” after his classmate’s sister. She attended graduation when Jefferson received his wings. The name “Margot” was on the projected airplane. She sent Jefferson a “Dear John” letter at POW camp, but he never got the letter and never saw her after the war. Four years ago, Jefferson received a call from Margot’s nephew asking if he wanted a picture of Margot. She has since passed. [Annotator’s Note: Interviewer asks about life in the States as a Lieutenant.] Jefferson was seen as a celebrity with his gold wings and Air Force status. He was able to get into any nightclub or bars with his uniform. Jefferson never had to buy a drink. Jefferson flew both the P-39 and P-40 planes before he went overseas. Jefferson did not fly the P-40 enough to know about it. The P-39 was straight and similar to sitting in an automobile until you tried to turn the plane. He flew close to 100 hours at the Selfridge Air Force Base. Jefferson did not consider the P-39 a good fighter plane. The Russians used the plane to hunt tanks and gathered about 12 victories using the 37- millimeter canon. [Annotator’s Note: Jefferson listens as the interviewer remarks Jefferson may have been shot down if he flew the P-47 mission in Italy.] Jefferson considers the P-47 plane more durable, but does not know if the plane could have survived the hit that took him down over France. When his plane was hit by a 20-millimeter or 37-millimeter fire came out of the floor. After talking to German officer, Jefferson learned the plane could have exploded if he was not over the tree tops. Jefferson flew C Models throughout the war and was supposed to get a D Model. Charlie White from St. Louis got his bed and the plane.

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Alexander Jefferson traveled overseas on the top deck with white nurses in a group of all black officers. The white officers resented the black officers for having the top deck. Jefferson admits enjoying the trip overseas. They traveled through the Straits of Gibraltar and through Oran, North Africa for four or five days. The men were told to always travel in large groups because Arabs in the desert would kill GIs for their shoes and uniforms and sheets. Jefferson went from Algiers to Naples on an Indian vessel that smelled of curry. They stayed in Naples for four or five days at a hotel with working girls nearby. Jefferson and other officers stayed in tents at the base at Ramitelli. During the summer the tents would be lifted to allow airflow and in the winter a stove powered by octane gas would supply warmth. The tents had bug nets with cans of DDT. Jefferson flew Elsberry’s wing many times. Jefferson never shot his guns at a German. The only time Jefferson had the opportunity was after a mission when he was free for search and destroy German airfields. Jefferson shot two trains and barges on the Danube River. Jefferson thought the P-51 aircraft would be a good ground attack plane until it met 20-millimeter or 30- millimeter. The P-51 flew similar to the AT6 [Annotator’s Note: North American Aviation T-6 Texan] but had more horsepower. Jefferson describes Colonel Davis [Annotator’s Note: Benjamin Oliver Davis, Jr.] as tall stern disciplinarian whom he would play poker where Colonel referred to the men by their first name. Jefferson was known as “Little Jeff” only at poker. During military briefing Davis commanded the men to stay with the bombers no matter what. Jefferson and his men stayed in formation which is cited for their reputation. They lost bombers because it was impossible not to lose bombers because they were spread out between 20 miles. [Annotator’s Note: Interviewer pauses to switch out tapes.]

Annotation

Alexander Jefferson flew in the Ploesti Raid. It was the first time Jefferson had ever gotten sick. They escorted B-17s to Ploesti. The first time he had been to Ploesti, the B-17s got to the Initial Point and Jefferson left them. Over the target was a big black cloud. They had been through flak when the 88s explode. The B-17 was heading into the black cloud over the target. Jefferson and his men waited for the B-17s to come out of the cloud. They watched men jump out of their planes and the planes explode. Jefferson saw eight men die and got sick and passed out. On all of Jefferson’s missions he never saw anyone get hit like in the movies. He had to clean his own cockpit after he got sick. When Jefferson wasn’t flying at Ramitelli, he would help the crew chief work on airplanes such as the P-12. Jefferson considers himself a “mechanical nerd.” Jefferson did not write home often and did not receive mail too often. Ramitelli was a totally segregated air base. The name comes from the Italian wheat farmer who owned the land and house was the headquarters. The location was a quarter mile off the Adriatic Sea. The only places the planes would fail would be over the water or into the mountains. Jefferson had no contact with the Italian civilians. He was only at Ramitelli for two months. The men at Ramitelli could not go to the Island of Capri so they made their rest camp at Rome. Jefferson was not scared at any point while being shot down. It never crossed his mind that he would be treated differently because he was not white. Jefferson drew pictures of how he got out of airplanes. The men in bomber crews described to him what it was like to be injured in the plane. Jefferson never had any nightmares. Jefferson’s interrogation at Dulag Luft [Annotator’s Note: interrogation camp near Frankfurt] was interesting. The interrogator had a book labeled, “332nd Fighter Group Negroes Red Tails” including pictures of all of his former classmates, Jefferson’s graduation picture, his high school grades, and college grades. This man knew more about Jefferson than Jefferson knew about himself. [Annotator’s Note: Phone rings and Jefferson goes to answer it. Pause in video.] After interrogation, he joined other POWs near Frankfurt on the Main. These men also mentioned the interrogator knew more about them as well.

Annotation

Alexander Jefferson went into Stalag Luft III with about 75 to 100 prisoners. The rooms were crowded so they turned the double bunk rooms into triple bunk rooms. A Colonel with a chicken on his collar requested he follow a man into his room that he still keeps in contact with. [Annotator’s Note: Jefferson is confused thinking about the man’s name.] Jefferson was put in this security room, because he was not a German. Jefferson was in the camp at 22 years old. The senior colonel officer was in charge of the Americans. He did not deal with a lot of racism. Jefferson never spoke to the German guards inside the camp. A couple weeks after Jefferson came into the camp, a bomber crew from the 15th Air Force came in and spread the tale of the Red Tails staying with the bombers. Jefferson’s reputation rose in camp because the Red Tails were known to bring the men back. The hardest part about the POW camp was the food. Germans didn’t have much food. If it was not for the International Red Cross food parcels, the men would have died. They were supposed to get one box per man per week, but they ended up having half a box per man. Instead of ten boxes per week in the room they got five. The men did their own cooking in the room. The International Red Cross parcel included one can of liverwurst and a small can of Spam and a quarter pound of cheese and a can of powdered milk called “Klim” and a chocolate D bar and four or five packs of cigarettes. Jefferson said everybody smoked and mentions different cigarette ads. On the Navy ships nobody smoked until a bell sounded. The war made smokers out of soldiers causing cancer rates among war veterans to be so high. Jefferson began smoking at age 16 when he left home. Jefferson was smoking two packs a day when he joined the war and quit cold turkey in 1970. Jefferson taught a lesson to his students showing a smoke-damaged lung and a healthy lung and quit when his students asked what kind of cigarettes he smoked. [Annotator’s Note: Jefferson reacts to Interviewer’s story of smoking.] Jefferson never tried to escape because he was too far inside of Germany and could never escape being a black man. The men listened to the BBC radio and knew where the American troops were.

Annotation

Alexander Jefferson listened to the BBC radio at the POW camp, but had no idea about the landings in Southern France. The POWs did not know the invasions were going off. If Jefferson had gone to the base he most likely would have had a mission during the Normandy invasion. [Annotator’s Note: Jefferson shakes his head in agreement while the interviewer asks about nightmares other men had.] Jefferson had no nightmares. Men would have day and nighttime nightmares. Jefferson would wake the men up. The POWs had been watching the news on the progress of the Russians coming from the East. The men began to knit scarves and boots and hats and gloves because the weather was turning cold. POWs ate the food stash and Jefferson gathered his drawings and stored them in his coat. Germans would post news two or three days behind the men and position of the American information was two days late. The Germans told the men to move out. They left around 11:30 or midnight. The evacuation was orderly and it was snowing at a temperature around 20 below. Jefferson’s thoughts were to survive. The POWs were packed 70 or 90 men into a train fit for 40 or 50 in Steinburg. The train stopped after a day so the men could relieve themselves. Many men had dysentery. Jefferson does not recall other illnesses. Jefferson did not recall the Germans passing out flyers to pilots to fight for the German Army against the Russians. Barracks in Stalag VIIA were occupied by Russians and other minorities. It had to be deloused and cleaned before they got there. The men were put into tents 200 or 300 feet long and 50 or 60 feet wide with woodchip sawdust as flooring with woodchip mattresses. The barracks were filled with bedbugs and lice. [Annotator’s Note: Beeping noise occurs and neither Jefferson nor the interviewer can figure out the noise. Jefferson looks around.]

Annotation

Alexander Jefferson survived the horrible conditions of Stalag Luft III. General Patton was horrified of the conditions when he came through. [Annotator’s Note: Jefferson is shaking his head in agreement.] Jefferson and other POWs could watch other Red Tail P-51 bombers shoot Moosburg. Germans would bring the prisoners back inside. POWs celebrated seeing the Red Tails. The B-17 bombed Munich near the camp. The whole sky was covered in B-17 plane formation. Jefferson noticed empty spots when the planes returned. Jefferson flew with 64 planes when he flew. Jefferson saw P-51s flying overhead every six hours. Jefferson could hear the guns about a mile away. The German guards packed up and left. Only one German officer stayed named Gladevich until the Americans got to the camp. He welcomed the Americans when they came through. The American liberation was organized confusion. Some men went to Moosburg and Jefferson stayed in the camp waiting for the Americans. Jefferson could not see between buildings because of the all the prisoners and confusion. Patton rode through on a tank with the second wave of Americans. Jefferson felt jubilation upon liberation. The 4th and the 14th Armored Division came in and brought a field kitchen including biscuits and gravy and chicken. The men got sick eating so much food.

Annotation

Alexander Jefferson returned to the United States on ships, picking up men in England and spending eight days across the Atlantic. Jefferson arrived in New York harbor. The ship included thousands of men who experienced war. Jefferson walked off the ship and was met by a white soldier who told the men, “Whites to the right and Niggers to the left.” Jefferson met racism and segregation coming home. Jefferson hated the idea he fought for a country and people who did not appreciate him. Jefferson stayed in service and returned to Tuskegee Army Airfield and appointed as an instructor in advance and stayed until Tuskegee closed in 1946. Jefferson transferred to Lockbourne Air force base in Columbus, Ohio and was riffed out the army in 1947. Jefferson married in Lockbourne. His wife was a parachute technician and he met her at Tuskegee. Jefferson left the Army as a First Lieutenant. He joined the Reserves in downtown Detroit. The Reserves met and discuss everyday events. Jefferson joined the Reserves in Selfridge in the Recovery squadron. Jefferson recovered B-52s coming back from bombing Russia. He continued to work in the Reserves until he retired. He also became an operations officer and education and training officer and intelligence officer. Jefferson came home after two or three weeks and enrolled in Wayne State University to be a research scientist. Jefferson qualified to be an elementary science teacher in 1948. Jefferson used the GI Bill to return to school and get his Masters degree in Education and 30 hours towards a Doctorate. The war opened up opportunities that would have never been open to him before due to segregation. The war did not change Jefferson’s values or morals. Jefferson’s father was strict and would not allow him to come in the house after 11 at night. Jefferson never swore around his family. Jefferson’s grandfather was a minister with a very conservative family.

Annotation

Alexander Jefferson worked in the post office when he returned home from war after school. Jefferson discovered his father drank after the war. Jefferson fought World War II because he has been an American all of his life and wanted to be treated equally. Jefferson believes he was part of the Civil Rights movement by being in the Tuskegee Army Air Corps and changed rules in the Army Air Corps. Jefferson and other black pilots helped change the Army Air Corps by their deeds. Jefferson felt annoyed when Italians and Irish and English came to America thinking they owned the country and told him to go back to Africa. Jefferson fought for the United States because he considers this his country. The only Americans who have right to be Americans are the Native Americans. Jefferson taught his classes about the invasion of Europeans. Jefferson believes it is important to carry on traditions and teach other generations about World War II by acknowledging the past. The National World War II Museum is important to honor men who died in battle or men whose history was lost. All of the histories in the museums need to be recorded to make sure all the men important to World War II are known. Jefferson believes it was strange to put the Tuskegee school in the south, but the Army controlled the situation and had the responsibility to decide the location. The school was placed where the white soldiers could control the white and black integrated population. Patterson controlled the school in Alabama for money to buy the land for the Tuskegee Army Air Field. Jefferson did not believe integration was ready, because the south was still too strong. World War II had to happen for integration.

Annotation

Alexander Jefferson worked in the post office when he returned home from war after school. Jefferson discovered his father drank after the war. Jefferson fought World War II because he has been an American all of his life and wanted to be treated equally. Jefferson believes he was part of the Civil Rights movement by being in the Tuskegee Army Air Corps and changed rules in the Army Air Corps. Jefferson and other black pilots helped change the Army Air Corps by their deeds. Jefferson felt annoyed when Italians and Irish and English came to America thinking they owned the country and told him to go back to Africa. Jefferson fought for the United States because he considers this his country. The only Americans who have right to be Americans are the Native Americans. Jefferson taught his classes about the invasion of Europeans. Jefferson believes it is important to carry on traditions and teach other generations about World War II by acknowledging the past. The National World War II Museum is important to honor men who died in battle or men whose history was lost. All of the histories in the museums need to be recorded to make sure all the men important to World War II are known. Jefferson believes it was strange to put the Tuskegee school in the south, but the Army controlled the situation and had the responsibility to decide the location. The school was placed where the white soldiers could control the white and black integrated population. Patterson controlled the school in Alabama for money to buy the land for the Tuskegee Army Air Field. Jefferson did not believe integration was ready, because the south was still too strong. World War II had to happen for integration.
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