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Samuel Hoffman | The Journal Gazette
Leslie Edwards served with the Tuskegee Airmen during World War II.

Tuskegee veteran shares life lessons

Be ready for when opportunity comes, young people told

Samuel Hoffman | The Journal Gazette
Leslie Edwards tells his audience at Weisser Park Youth Center on Saturday to be prepared to take advantage of opportunities.

– Young people need to prepare themselves to be able to take advantage of opportunities as they arise.

That was the message a former mechanic with the Tuskegee Airmen, an all-black air unit in World War II, told an audience at the Weisser Park Youth Center on Saturday.

“You owe it to yourself and your community,” Leslie Edwards said in comments before he gave his address. He was a sergeant who kept pilots’ planes flying.

Hard work is important, but you need opportunity. “You can work hard, but if opportunity is denied to do what is needed to advance, you just continue to work hard,” he said.

Edwards said opportunity is so much greater now than it was in his day. “I don’t care who you are. You must be upgrading yourself.”

Edwards, 89, who was born in Cincinnati, said that when he was young, “The education system let me know I was being prepared to be cheap labor.”

When he was drafted in World War II, he was tested, as everyone was, but then was made to retake the tests. At that point, he said, the Army decided to move him into the Army Air Corps as part of a project commonly called the Tuskegee project. “They were moving me away from cheap labor.

“They gave me a shot,” Edwards said. “How else are you going to get an opportunity to be an aircraft mechanic?”

At the time, black soldiers were relegated to jobs in supply and support positions, and many believed black soldiers would not be able to operate equipment or handle combat.

The Tuskegee project accepted pilot candidates with at least two years of college and put together flying units that proved to be among the best in the Army Air Corps. Even so, some officials tried to disband the unit.

Those units were also served by black ground personnel only, including Edwards, a mechanic.

Though more opportunities are available now, “It’s no good having an opportunity if young people aren’t prepared to pass the test,” he said. “Young people now have reasons to upgrade themselves.”

But not just young people, he said. “I’m trying to reach everyone in society.”

Before Edwards spoke, the audience was shown a brief movie about the Tuskegee fliers, and Edwards commented on what he said was left out.

It wasn’t mentioned that 162 black officers were arrested for entering the officers club at an airfield in Seymour, Ind., he said. It wasn’t mentioned that 32 black airmen were taken prisoner in Europe during the war.

“A lot of white guys were critical of your success,” he said. “They don’t want you to know about that.”

After World War II, Edwards said, “My training made me know that I could pass exams, I could prepare myself.”

As a result, he worked as a supervisor of meat inspectors for the Food and Drug Administration. “I worked for 24 years, and no one knew” that he had been associated with the Tuskegee fliers.

And people also have no idea how many black servicemen were involved in what came to be called the Tuskegee project. There were about 950 pilots and 15,000 ground personnel involved, segregated from other units of the military at a time when most black units were involved in support and supply.

The military was ordered desegregated By President Harry Truman in 1948.