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Raymond Cassagnol's Tuskegee training helped start the Haitian air force
by Tech. Sgt. John B. Dendy IV t opening
photo by Master Sgt. Dave Nolan
Combat situations flew through the computer at Raymond Cassagnol's home in Mobile, Ala., as he wrote the memoirs of his rich 81-year life.
He had a long way to go — maybe 150 pages — before he penned the passage about enlisting in Haiti's original air force. Then there were the pilot's wings he earned with America's Tuskegee Airmen, followed by returning to defend his Haitian homeland from invading Nazi submarines in World War II.
As he refined his draft, snippets re-entered his memory in dialects of French, Spanish, Creole and English. He kept writing them, like notes into a flight plan.
As the last of Haiti's original military airmen, Cassagnol's odyssey is already 250 pages and thousands of miles long. To his knowledge, he's the last airman remaining of the six Haitians sent for pilot training at Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Ala. And he laments that he limited his contacts with that hallowed ground of aviation training history since the war ended.
“When you haven't seen something in a long time, it looks small to the imagination. That's why Tuskegee is just a ‘remembrance field' to me now,” he said.
Part of America's aviation history
“One day, a friend who was in the American military said he saw my picture in the Smithsonian,” Cassagnol said. “I said, ‘I'd like to see that.' I went, and there it was. Haitians are part of American aviation history.”
Cassagnol was one of three airmen who left Haiti for America in January 1943. He's still alive, but the others met different fates in life. One was involved in an attack on the Haitian presidential palace in the 1960s. He was killed and dragged through the streets. The other was arrested after he retired. Nobody knew what happened to him after that.
“A lot of people disappeared under Haiti's dictators,” Haiti's last original airman said.
But not Cassagnol. He lived in Orlando, Fla., for 20 years until recently. He even remained unknown to the support network of Tuskegee Airmen. That lasted until the Orlando Sentinel newspaper ran a story on his life, and a history Web site posted it.
The story described a man who had a stellar career. Tuskegee veterans and Haitian-Americans in Florida were elated to know Cassagnol was living in their midst.
“They [Tuskegee's Haitians] didn't stay with us. They trained and went home with their group. So we had no idea what happened to them,” said retired Lt. Col. Leo Gray, a Tuskegee Airman living in Florida.
Fighting the war in Haiti
Cassagnol went quickly from Tuskegee to Haiti, becoming a primary instructor for Haiti's wartime pilot training program. He also joined Haiti's unproven submarine-hunting force.
Before those patrols began, Nazis on subs were surfacing and visiting at will off Haiti's pristine south coast. The crews made leisurely food runs into Haiti for buttermilk and baguettes.
Haiti's graduates from the Tuskegee program shut the milk runs off. They flew north and south routes over Haiti's rain-forested mountainsides in the North American AT-6 Texan on daylight sub hunts. Cassagnol logged more than 100 hours in the warplane. None of the warplanes had radar. But once they started patrolling the shoreline, the subs left.
Today, Haiti has no military. It's a nation rebuilding after years of heavy-handed military dictatorships and civil unrest. Few people associated with Haiti's military heritage are part of the healing process.
The early years
Cassagnol was born in 1920, while the U.S. Marine Corps occupied Haiti from 1915 to 1934. The occupation resulted in a technically competent and logistically well-equipped force for the world's first self-governing black republic. United States military missions to the nation trained a few Haitians as airmen before Cassagnol got his chance.
In 1942, Haiti received six armed Douglas O-38E observation planes because the allies wanted Haiti to help patrol the Caribbean Sea for those brazen Nazi submarines.
The Haitian government built an airstrip, called Bowen Field, in the capital city of Port-au-Prince. The government promptly commissioned officers to fly the O-38E. But none had any formal flight training, and they soon wrecked some of the $12,000 planes.
So in July 1942, Haiti placed newspaper ads to recruit 40 enlisted airmen. Cassagnol answered the ad. By dawn on selection day, 800 candidates and their supporters had gathered in the capital.
“There was a quick selection process,” Cassagnol said.
By that afternoon 100 combat prospects were left. Of those, recruiters would chose 42. They would call the names of those chosen only once. They yelled “Cassagnol” twice. But the young man didn't hear the call through the sea of people on the street.
“If a friend hadn't said, ‘Cassagnol, they are calling you,' I wouldn't have made it,” he said.
Recruiters told Cassagnol to go home, pack and come back Monday for two months of training at Bowen Field. The new recruits spent their first three weeks in boot camp — marching.
“I became ‘Sergeant Cassagnol,' ” he said.
He soon had his first chance to help Haiti's fledging air force. The 22-year-old expressed his concern about the aircraft wrecks at Bowen to his first sergeant. Cassagnol's brothers were mechanics, and he'd worked with them since 1937. He asked the first sergeant if he could join the mechanics at the field. Since no one else was interested, the top enlisted airman gave Cassagnol a wrench.
“I started fixing planes,” he said. And he worked on them after the duty day ended.
His supervisors sensed the sergeant's potential. So did an American named Dean Eshelman and the U.S. military attache to Haiti, Col. Charles Young.
Eshelman was the provisional chief of Haiti's air squadron. He flew Young's airplane for 90 minutes every day after work and noticed Cassagnol working the extra hours. One Friday Young and Eshelman visited Bowen Airfield together. The sergeant saw them marching and came to attention. The colonel asked him why he did the extra work each day.
“There's nothing else to do,” Cassagnol replied.
As the colonel listened, he stared into the sergeant's brown eyes and asked if he would be interested in flying. Under the calm exterior, Cassagnol was elated.
“In Haiti, we say it's like asking dry land if it needs rain,” he said. “I wanted to bring my bed under the plane to work that night.”
The next week the embassy team selected three officers for flight training. They'd awarded the third slot to Cassagnol. They told him he'd learn to fly warplanes in America. Cassagnol told his mother and his fiancee about his mission to Tuskegee. Jealous whispers of the sergeant's good fortune spread throughout Haiti.
“People said it was because my cousin had become a commanding officer,” he said. “Everyone wanted to be a mechanic. But opportunity does not knock twice.”
Headed to America
On Jan. 29, 1943, the first Haitian flight training students left their homes among the “Alps of the Caribbean” for Puerto Rico and Florida on a DC-3 Skytrain aircraft. They got their winter clothing issue, train tickets and a fat pay raise in Miami. In Haiti, Cassagnol earned $40 a month, but American sergeants earned $80. His pay doubled overnight.
Three trains later, the Haitians hit Tuskegee. Cassagnol became friends with then-cadet Daniel “Chappie” James Jr., who years later became the Air Force's first black four-star general.
“Chappie and I were in the same class — 43-G,” he said. “He called me ‘Sarge.' ”
Cassagnol started flight training at Moton Field. He flew solo 30 minutes faster than the eight-hour standard in the training program's PT-17 Stearman biplane. The Tuskegee team had a “trop frois” (very cool) surprise waiting for Sarge when he landed — a bucket of ice water.
“They said, ‘Your brain is hot, and you have to cool it,' ” he said. “I was there in February and March — it was cold, and the wind blew like mad.”
Cassagnol finished at Moton in March, moving to Tuskegee's Army field for basic flight school where he roomed with Chappie James.
While at Tuskegee, he didn't venture off base much. He knew about the prejudice that prevailed. Like the separate water fountains for blacks and whites.
“I avoided the places where I wouldn't be welcome,” he said.
Training was rough. Cadets washed out for stupid things three days from graduation, and Cassagnol said “it took an act of God to save” a doomed Tuskegee cadet.
“I lived it, so I know.”
Cassagnol said people tried to shut down “the Tuskegee experiment,” as naysayers called the training. There were many pressures on the cadets and leadership to perform.
“It took courage,” he said. “Other people might have given up. We didn't. When I went there, I didn't go to play. I went to fly, so I concentrated on that. Thank God for the results.”
Cassagnol received his diploma in July 1943. A Tuskegee newspaper published an article describing the three new Haitian pilots as a “Triple threat to the Axis.”
Three other Haitians arrived before he left and noticed his sergeant's stripes. They told him he'd earned his commission as a second lieutenant in the Haitian air force upon graduation. His success made the radio news in Haiti.
There were other surprises in store for Cassagnol. The “Triple Threat to the Axis” stood by in Miami to ferry two Vultee BT-13 “Valiant” warplanes the U.S. government was sending to Haiti. While they waited — in the well-pressed American uniforms they'd been issued — Haitian prejudice shot them down. Two civilian-trained Haitian pilots flew the planes to Haiti instead.
“It would have been a disgrace for some Haitians to see Tuskegee pilots flying those planes,” he said. “It was not laudable. We deserved better treatment.”
Once home, Cassagnol married his sweetheart. But he had trouble readjusting to life in Haiti. He couldn't stand the injustices taking place with the oppressive dictatorship. Cassagnol saw the government of those days as “an occupying force that would bring Haiti to its knees” within his lifetime. So he stayed in Haiti and left its military after the war.
He owned a sawmill and went to work as a lumberman. But he continued flying, and bought a used BT-13 to ferry his own supplies. Today, he still favors the plaid flannel shirts of a woodsman. The rising injustice in his country continued to bother him. So he sought asylum in the Dominican Republic in 1962. Then he moved to the United States.
Today, Cassagnol is the last remaining Haitian with silver wings from Tuskegee. He first returned to Haiti in 1986 and now visits the island regularly. And in 1999, he gave 200 acres of his land on the hilly isle to a charitable organization.
Then, in November 2000, Cassagnol returned to Tuskegee. A lot had changed in 57 years.
“I visualized myself standing there as a 22-year-old. Now I'm 81, with goose bumps and remembrances,” he said. “I'm glad I went.”
Cassagnol wanted to visit Tuskegee for some time. But he said he was waiting for the right moment, rather than forcing things.
When the time was right, “revisiting Tuskegee was a dream come true,” the aviator said.
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