July 24, 2014  

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School of Music Preserves History: The Tuskegee Airmen Fight Song

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Former Tuskegee Airmen from left to right: Col. Leo Gray, Col. Herbert Carter, and Col.Charles McGee. (Submitted photo)

With the precision, determination and mission of a World War II fighter squadron, The University of Southern Mississippi School of Music teamed with a radio-controlled (RC) airplane enthusiast and a former Tuskegee Airman to both make and preserve a part of American history

It all began when Jeff Williams, who flies the radio-controlled blimp at Golden Eagle basketball games, took a liking to the Southern Miss Pep Band which performs at those games. Williams later approached Dr. Michael Miles, director of the School of Music, to see if he would coordinate the arrangement and recording of the Tuskegee Airmen Fight Song from World War II.

The fight song was sung by the young African-American pilots, but the lyrics were never put to music. However, that would change when Williams contacted former Tuskegee Airman, LeRoy “Boots” Battle, Sr., who got the lyrics and melody to the School of Music.

“We wanted the university to participate in creating an archival arrangement and recording of a significant part of American history, so we brought together a small group of faculty and students with the right expertise to get it done,” said Miles. “The School of Music is proud and honored to have participated in this meaningful project in which everyone involved donated their time and talent to make it happen.”

The Tuskegee Airmen were young men who enlisted in World War II and became America’s first African-American military pilots, bombardiers, meteorologists, air gunners and mechanics. Those that became single-engine or multi-engine pilots trained at Tuskegee Army Air Field (TAAF) in Tuskegee, Ala. These African-American men fought two wars – one against military forces overseas and the other against racism at home and abroad.

Williams is president of the Pine Belt R/C Association, a group of local aviation devotees. He tried to track down the fight song for months, even going as far as checking both the Library of Congress and Tuskegee University.

“We needed a good recording of the song,” said Williams. “This is a piece of history that the world needed to hear.”

Once the words and melody were provided, the Southern Miss School of Music team did its magic. Jonathan Rodgers, a doctoral student in choral conducting, arranged the song with piano and percussion accompaniment. Jeff Rasier, instructor of Entertainment Industry (EI), and students Austin Gibson, Demi Pritchard, Codi Castle and Nathan Spears from School of Mass Communication and Journalism handled the recording session. Paul Linden, assistant professor of EI provided advice on copyright issues and helped coordinate the recording session.

Next came the Spirit of Southern men’s a cappella ensemble which performs a wide variety of music from sacred to oldies and contemporary pop to spirituals. Under the direction of Dr. John Flanery, assistant director of Choral Activities, the ensemble gave new voice to the first-ever recording.

It was a different group of young voices who first gave song to the lyrics. From 1941-1946, nine hundred and ninety-six pilots graduated at TAAF, receiving military commissions and pilot wings, including “Boots” Battle.

Battle now lives in Maryland, but in 1943 he was drafted and became part of American history. Like all Tuskegee Airmen, he is a recipient of the Congressional Gold Medal. After the war he was a high school band director and professional musician. He has published two books, “Easier Said” and “And the Beat Goes On,” documenting remembrances of his life in music; his Harlem Renaissance childhood, his Jazz, Swing and Big Band Era adolescence and then being catapulted into manhood in World War II.

“It’s wonderful that Southern Miss and Mr. Williams would do these things to carry on the Tuskegee Airmen tradition,” said Battle. “Most people don’t know about us; we’re only about two paragraphs in most History books. The majority of the airmen are in our 80’s and 90’s, so we’d be honored to have our story continue long after we’re gone.”

For more information on the Tuskegee Airmen, visit http://www.tuskegeeairmen.org/. For more information on Pine Belt RC Association visit http://pinebeltrc.com/.