The Tuskegee Airmen were America’s first black military airmen. Dedicated and determined, these young men enlisted during World War II in order to serve their country, at a time when there were many people who thought black men lacked intelligence, skill, courage and patriotism.
Many came from large metropolitan areas like New York City and Chicago, but their lives touched those of people from rural areas, as well. They served in segregated fighter squadrons, including the now famous “Red Tail” fighters who provided such tenacious bomber escort cover that they rarely lost a bomber.
Shortly after the In Their Own Words Veterans Museum (ITOW) opened in Perham, author Kim Russell presented a Reader’s Theatre version of her play, “Tuskegee Love Letters.” The play is based on letters, V-mails actually, between her mother and her father, a Tuskegee Airman.
At the time of the presentation, one of the volunteers at ITOW was Dorothy Ryan, widow of the late William K. Ryan. William had graduated from high school in 1943. A few weeks later he was drafted into the Army and served in the Army Air Corps in World War II with the 774th Bombardier Squadron and 463rd Bombardier Group serving in Italy.
After his military service, William attended the Logan College of Chiropractic in St. Louis, Missouri. In 1949, he set up a practice in Highland Village in St. Paul, and in 1953 he moved his family and practice to Perham, where he was a chiropractor for 34 years until his death from a heart attack in February of 1987.
Dorothy Ann Mayer married William in 1950. She remembered the stories he told her about his experiences in during WWII.
“I have always wanted to meet someone with the Tuskegee Airmen,” she said to Kim when they were introduced. “My Bill was with one of the Bombardier Groups in Italy during World War II. He told me that they ran into trouble on one of their missions and he didn’t think they were going to make it back. And then, like a miracle, the Tuskegee fighters appeared, and they were saved.”
She put her arms around Kim and gave her a big hug: “I don’t know if it was your father or not, but thank you anyway, from the bottom of my heart.”
In 1948, President Harry Truman enacted an executive order which directed equality of treatment and opportunity in all of the United States Armed Forces. In time, this order led to the end of racial segregation in the military forces. It was also the first step toward racial integration in the United States of America.
The positive experience, the outstanding record of accomplishment and the superb behavior of black airmen during World War II, and after, were important factors in the initiation of historic social change to achieve racial equality in America.
This story of the Tuskegee Airmen and how they impacted the life of one local veteran is the kind of amazing connection that happens more often than you’d imagine. The traveling exhibits at ITOW helped connect local stories with the stories of the larger world, often in surprising ways.
February is Black History Month, so I thought this would be a good story to include. The play, “Tuskegee Love Letters,” by Kim Russell, is being presented next month in Las Vegas.
Information for this article came from “East Otter Tail History Book, Volume II, 1994,” the Tuskegee Airmen National Museum and the personal papers of Lina Belar, founder and retired director of the Friends of the History Museum of East Otter Tail County.