A Courtship in the Sky
This is a sweet story of love and patriotism, from my new book, They Roared, hopefully to be released by summer.
Mildred Louise Hemmons was born on September 14, 1921, in Benson, Alabama. Her mother, Mamie, was the postmaster for the town. Her father, Luther, was the foreperson of a sawmill. The family lived in Tuskegee for a while and then moved to Enfield, North Carolina. In Enfield, her father worked for Bricks Junior College as business manager. The all-Black school was closed during the Depression and the family moved to Holly Springs, Mississippi. Mildred finished high school in Holly Springs at fifteen.
Back in Tuskegee, she enrolled as a business major at the University, and worked in an office that processed applications for the local branch of Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP). During that time, she kept seeing all these young men, dozens of them, apply to become pilots, and she thought to herself, “I can do that.” She applied for the program herself, but they rejected her, because was not yet eighteen. As soon as she turned eighteen, she applied again, and they accepted her. Millie graduated from Tuskegee’s first training class on February 1, 1941, with her pilot’s license. This made her the first female pilot in Alabama. She flew a little Piper J-3 Cub that she could rent from the school. There were only about a hundred Black licensed pilots in the nation, and only a handful of them were Black women. A few months later, women were officially banned from the CPTP; as war approached, the country needed only male pilots, at least that is what the government decided. The women vehemently disagreed.
A month later, she met First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt when she was visiting the school. Mildred was flying over Kennedy Field, with her hair pulled back under a cap, and wearing a leather flying jacket that had been a gift from her parents. She landed and soon realized Roosevelt was here to see Black men, who took to the air. Here she was, a Black woman landing at the feet of Eleanor Roosevelt. Millie remembers that “Mrs. Roosevelt was very gracious; I was tongue tied.” When Millie stepped down from her Piper Cub, they advised her someone wanted to meet her. “How’s flying?” asked the first lady. Millie was nervous, but she listened as the first lady confined to her, that Amelia Earhart had once made her a promise she would give her flying lessons. Eleanor Roosevelt was one classy lady and loved the idea of flight. Of course, that was a moot point as Earhart disappeared over the Pacific in 1937. Tuskegee photographer P.H. Polk caught Mildred’s moment with Mrs. Roosevelt. Mildred earned her BA in business from Tuskegee when she was only 19. Being at Tuskegee gave her the opportunity to fly with Tuskegee’s chief instructor, Charles A. Anderson, in the Civil Air Patrol. “Chief,” as he was called, recognized her ambitions and abilities. He often said she was one of his best students.
Early in 1942, they went to Montgomery, Alabama, to register for the CAP Squadron. This was another first for Mildred, the first Black woman in the Montgomery Civil Air Patrol Squadron. Because they were Black, neither she nor Anderson were ever called upon to patrol for that state. That ancient and toxic prejudice again? Tuskegee was one of six black colleges that took part in the short-lived initiative, which trained undergraduates to become civilian pilots on the eve of World War II. They became known as the first couple of the Tuskegee Airmen. Herbert Carter and Millie Hemmons courted each other in the air in 1942.
They first met in 1939 on the campus of the University. He said he was smitten immediately, but was shy and lacked confidence to ask her on a date. After a while, he got up courage to ask her to a dance. That is when he learned they were both enrolled in CPTP. They had the love of flying in common and would soon grow to love for each other. Herman could not leave the air base or to date other Tuskegee students during the training period. But once again, young love was not to be deterred. He’d call her up on Fridays: “Are you gonna be flying this weekend?” “Of course,” she’d say! On the weekends, he would take his plane out for “maintenance flight checks.” This allowed him to “meet” Mildred as she was flying her little rented plane over Lake Martin. They would choose a time to “meet,” and their rendezvous point was 3,000 feet above a bridge at the Lake. He’d be flying a repaired AT6 trainer. She’d be in a much slower Piper J-3 Cub. “When I’d get to Lake Martin, I’d see this bright yellow Cub putt-putting along,” he said. “I’d be real proud: She was on time and on target.” He’d pull down and fly in formation with her. They couldn’t communicate by radio; her Cub didn’t have one. All they could do was smile, wave and blow kisses as they passed each other in the sky. It was terribly sweet and romantic, but they wanted more.
On August 21, 1942, his cadet training completed, they married at the Tuskegee Army Airfield chapel. Her husband nicknamed her “Mike” because of her tomboy way of dressing, and even had the name painted on his plane during the war. He was a fighter pilot flying combat missions during the North African, Sicilian, Italian and European campaigns of World War II, 77 missions in all. She called him “Geno.” The endearing names defined an enduring 70-year relationship of great caring and respect. Although Millie could not pursue more advanced training through the Tuskegee Civilian Pilot Training Program, it was the “woman” thing again. She applied to the Women Air Force Service Pilots (WASP). When she applied, she was a skillful, fully qualified pilot, and had logged over 100 hours of flying time. One would think she was a shoe in, as the saying goes. She was rejected and was so hurt and furious that she destroyed her rejection letter. That letter came from Jackie Cochran, and it said that I “was not eligible because of my race.” The letter left no doubt at all about the reason. The pilots that were men went on to a certain level of fame, the subject of books, a recent documentary, even a TV movie. But the women, the first African-American women licensed to fly in the Deep South, have remained in relative obscurity.
Cochran attempted to account for the complete absence of African American WASP in her 1954 autobiography, The Stars at Noon. She stated that the African American women that applied just didn’t have the requisite training or flying experience. Not the truth, and in Millie’s case, it was untrue. Now, to the bottom line, she insisted her program was politically tenuous at best with women flying, and it would have been further jeopardized if they had admitted a Black pilot. Sounds more like the truth to me. “She was one of those unfortunate victims of prejudice, bigotry and discrimination,” said her husband, at 94. “She wanted to go as high and as fast as she could. “If she had been able to get into the Air Corps, she’d have been amazing.”
With one door slammed shut, she found another one open, as one often does. Millie worked at Morton Field, which was the only primary flight facility for African American pilot candidates in the U.S. Air Force. She was the Chief Clerk of the Quartermaster Corps, which was administrative work. What a blow that must have been for a qualified pilot who had such skill and passion! Oh, and she also rigged parachutes and operated a bulldozer to clear airstrips. She cleared the way for the airmen (air men) by bulldozing the trees off the site of the airstrip. She knew that even though she could not recognize her dream to fly, she was still contributing important work to the war effort. What tenacity and patriotic spirit she showed!
With the end of the war, Herbert’s career took them across the United States and Europe. They eventually returned to their roots at Tuskegee. Herbert and Millie had three children. Over the years, Millie mentored and encouraged younger Black women to become pilots. Several of her protégées became flight nurses and aerospace engineers. The Airfield manager, Roosevelt Lewis Jr, who also trained with Charles Anderson, said, “Mildred is really recognized here in Tuskegee as one of the Tuskegee Airmen.” Millie Carter and Charlie Anderson continued to fly together whenever they could. When she was 64, in 1985, she fell and broke a hip. This ended her flying career. When reminiscing later in her life about her life flying. She said that she had always felt comfortable at Tuskegee. “I was one of the boys, and still am.”
After recovering from hip surgery, she climbed into the back seat of a PT-17 biplane, and did some aerobatics. The boys, the other pilots, always bragged that Mildred could fly anything that had wings on it! It wasn’t until she was 70 years old that she received a letter recognizing her as a WASP. They declared Mildred Carter an official member of WASP in February 2011.
In September 2011, they honored Mildred Carter at the Tuskegee Human and Multicultural Center with a ceremony and roses. She was a Designated Original Tuskegee Airman too. (Airman?)
At 90, Mildred Hemmons Carter passed away, her wingman at her side. “She never lost that beautiful smile and personality,” Herbert Carter said.