Retrospective: Robert Terry – Tuskegee Airmen and a Basking Ridge Pilot

Tuskegee Airmen Basking Ridge New Jersey
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Civilian Pilot and Army Air Force Instructor Robert (Bob) Terry from Basking Ridge was a groundbreaking Pilot in WWII….and yes, he was black.


NOTE:

As with all Mr. Local History retrospectives, we often update the post when we learn stories and are sent photos from our community. We will continue to grow this piece as information becomes available. The story is expanding as we learn more about the family.

Mr. Local History Project
Introduction on the history of the Tuskegee Airmen: Source: National Park Service

You would think being black today and being a pilot didn’t matter, and it doesn’t. In fact it never did. But you put yourself in the shoes of Robert Terry and the Tuskegee Airmen and you learn there was a huge difference. The Mr. Local History Project takes a look back at this inspiring Basking Ridge resident and his story.

In June 1939, the Civilian Pilot Training Act was signed into law, authorizing the private training of military pilots by civilian schools. A last-minute amendment allowed the limited inclusion of African-Americans in the program. The Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama, was among the black colleges approved to provide the training.

From 1941 thru 1945, all black military pilots trained at Griel Field, Kennedy Field, Moton Field, Shorter Field and the Tuskegee Army Air Fields. They were educated at the Tuskegee Institute located around Tuskegee, Alabama. They had their own medical units, their own surgeons and their own places to eat. You see, white surgeons weren’t allowed to operate on black soldiers.

This group of pilots from the 99th Flying Training Squadron and the 99th Fighter Squadron made a name for themselves as being experts in the sky abroad, while also breaking racial barriers at home. The Tuskegee Airmen were the first black military aviators in the United States Army Air Force.

Meet Basking Ridge’s Captain Robert Terry

Basking Ridge’s USAAF Captain Robert Terry served the United States Army Air Force (USAAF) as a Tuskegee Airmen flight instructor from 1941-1945 and was from Basking Ridge, New Jersey. Terry is pictured here in the cockpit of a Douglas C-47 Skytrain During the invasion of Sicily in July 1943, C-47s dropped 4,381 allied paratroopers.
Source: mrlocalhistory.org and Arcadia Books

Captain Robert Terry was a flight instructor from Basking Ridge for the Tuskegee Airmen from 1941 to 1945. Terry, who was 30 at the time, taught young black men to fly fighter Curtiss P- 40 Warhawks, Bell P- 39 Airacobras and P-51 Mustang fighter planes who served America well during the European campaign in North Africa and Italy. He also trained other pilots to escort B-17 and B-24 heavy bombers, using P-47 and P-51 airplanes at the USAAF MOtor field in Tuskegee, Alabama.

The 332nd Fighter Group, was known as the Tuskegee Airmen. This title refers to all who trained in the Army Air Forces African-American pilot training program at Moton Field and Tuskegee Army Airfield, Alabama, between 1941 and 1945. It includes pilots, navigators, bombardiers, maintenance and support staff, instructors, and personnel who kept aircraft flying. The 99th was originally formed as the Army Air Force‘s first African American training and fighter squadrons, then known the 99th Pursuit Squadron.

Formed as the 332nd Fighter Group and the 477th Bombardment Group of the United States Army Air Forces, the 332nd Fighter Group, was the first black flying group in the USAF. After training, they were first deployed to North Africa in April 1943, and later to Sicily and Italy.

Early Years

Robert Terry was born June 23, 1910 in Mendham on a farm where his parents were employed. He was a graduate of Bernards High School in Bernardsville (Basking Ridge didn’t have a high school at the time).

George Viehmann, who was the first Somerset Hills Airport Manager hired him to aid the airport construction before it opened in 1932.

Bernardsville News Advertisement for lessons that were given by Robert Terry at the Somerset Hills Airport.

Robert Terry first learned to fly at Somerset Hills Airport in the Basking Ridge section of Bernards Township, New Jersey, across the street from the house where Robert, his wife Estelle, and his father Beverly Terry lived. Terry convinced the airport owners to give him lessons in 1931 in exchange for work clearing the runway.

Looking back at the Somerset Hills Airport in Basking Ridge, NJ
Terry learned to fly at The Somerset Hills Airport just after it opened in 1932. He became a fixture there as a flight instructor alongside his boss and friends George Viehmann and Waldron Schanz.

After He soloed in April 1932, he became a flight instructor at the airport. Terry received his commercial pilots license on December 7, 1939 from the Somerset School of Aeronautics at the Somerset Airfield. He received his official instructors license on March 13, 1940. While he couldn’t rent a plane because he was black, facility staff and friends always stepped in and co-signed on his behalf.

Somerset Hills Airport Basking Ridge Historic Marker
Somerset Hills Airport Basking Ridge Historic Marker. The airport became a US Air Force Flight instruction facility under the leadership of chief flight instructor Robert Terry who was recruited to Tuskegee Alabama to help train a new corp of black fighter pilots.

In 1939 Congress passed the Civilian Pilot Training Act, which required that African-Americans be included in civilian pilot training, and Public Law 18, which eventually resulted in an African-American military flying unit. In 1940, black pilots began training at Tuskegee Institute in the Civilian Pilot Training
Program.

Robert (Bob) Terry at the Civilian Air Training Facility Tuskegee Alabama later lived in Basking Ridge, New Jersey in the 1960s
Tuskegee Airmen Instructors. Robert (Bob) Terry (Front Row Far Left) at the Civilian Air Training Facility in Tuskegee Alabama. Terry was from Basking Ridge, New Jersey.
In photo: Civilian Primary Instructors: Bob Terry, John XE “John” Young, Stevens, Charles XE “Charles” Fox, Roscoe XE “Roscoe” Draper, Sherman XE “Sherman” Rose, James XE “James” A. Hill, Adolph Moret, Ernest XE “Ernest” Henderson, Matthew XE “Matthew” Plummer, Linwood XE “Linwood” Williams XE “Williams” , Daniel C. James, Lewis XE “Lewis” Jackson XE “Jackson” , Milton XE “Milton” Crenshaw, Perry XE “Perry” Young, Charlie Flowers, Claude Platt, “Chief XE “Chip” ” Anderson, C.R. Harris, Wendell XE “Wendell” Lipscomb, J. E. XE “J. E.” Wright.
Source: Library of Congress.
March 1945 – First Officer Robert Terry Sr. Source: Bernardsville News

The Bernards pilot was 30 in 1941, a little old for flying combat missions. More significantly to the still-segregated Army Air Corps, he was black.

Instructors Training Focus

As a flight instructor, Robert Terry trained each student to make at least 175 landings. The primary training syllabus was initially twelve weeks in length including 60 hours of flight time and 225 hours of ground training. Primary flying training was divided into four standard phases.

  • In the pre-solo phase students became familiar with the general operation of a light aircraft.
  • In the second, or intermediate phase, pre-solo work was reviewed, and precision of control was developed.
  • The third, or accuracy, phase demanded high proficiency in various types of landing approaches and landings.
  • The fourth, or acrobatic, phase required ability to perform loops, Immelmann turns, slow rolls, half-rolls, and snap rolls.

In the basic phase, cadets flew in the BT-13 trainer and learned military flying techniques,. Advanced training transitioned the pilots from the single-engine trainer to fighter aircraft, the AT-6A Texan. Following this phase, they were given advanced transition training from the AT-6 to the P-40 Warhawk or the twin-engine AT-10 Wichita trainer for pilots who would be flying B-25 Mitchell bombers. Instructors were especially crucial in the advanced phase.

Basking Ridge’s Robert Terry used the two seat PT-13D prepared Tuskegee Airmen for war.
The National Capitol Squadron’s Vultee BT-13 is painted to represent a trainer based at Tuskegee Army Air Field during WWII in honor of Squadron and Commemorative Air Force Honorary Members, General Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., USAF (Ret) combat leader of the Tuskegee Airmen, and Colonel Charles E. McGee, USAF (Ret) also a leading Tuskegee Airman. The aircraft’s side number, TU-70, represents a BT-13 that Colonel McGee flew the most (over 20 times) during his pilot training in 1943. Source: http://warbirdsnews.com/

Surviving Tuskegee Airmen often refer to their instruction as what could “make or break a cadet.” After primary training, cadets moved on to basic and advanced flight training at Tuskegee Army Air Field, about seven miles from Moton Field. After primary training, cadets moved on to basic and advanced flight training at Tuskegee Army Air Field, about seven miles from Moton Field. 

Cadets in training for US Army Air Corps 99th Pursuit Squadron, going through hazing procedures on airfield at flight training school.

Terry would use Airport 1 and Kennedy Field, which was no more than a sod runway with a few buildings for aircraft and refueling equipment. It’s nice because that was exactly what Terry had used back in Basking Ridge. Kennedy became most known for Charles A. (“Chief”) Anderson’s famous flight with first lady Eleanor Roosevelt in 1941.

The most famous event ever to occur at Kennedy Field was March 29, 1941. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt supported the Civilian Pilot Training Program and the War Training Service. She is pictured here in a Piper J-3 Cub trainer with C. Alfred “Chief” Anderson, a pioneer black aviator and respected instructor at Tuskegee Institute.
Source: U.S. Air Force

Among the 13 members of the first class of the Tuskegee aviation cadets in 1941 was Benjamin O. Davis Jr., a graduate of West Point and the son of Brigadier General Benjamin O. Davis, one of two black officers (other than chaplains) in the entire U.S. military at the time.

The P-51 (C & D) Mustang from North America Aviation, Inc. was another of the fighter class airplanes flown by the Tuskegee Airmen.
The P-39 Airacobra under prep at the 332nd FG Montecorvino Aerodrome Salerno, Italy 1944. Source: Pinterest

After The War

 First we fast forward to March 2007. President George W. Bush (45) presided at a ceremony, where he announced that Congress had authorized the striking of a Congressional Gold Medal to honor the Tuskegee Airmen.  Of the 300 attending, each received bronze editions of the medal. The gold original is on display at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC.

Tuskegee Airmen Congressional Medal of Honor – 2007.

But Robert Terry didn’t receive any decorations during his lifetime.

After the war for Robert Terry, getting a pilot’s job was more important than medals. Terry sent out applications to every commercial airline but never got past the first interview when it became obvious that he was black. With no other option, Terry was offered the “chief pilot and instructor” role at the Somerset Hills airfield. Terry also ran an air taxi to LaGuardia and other large area airports. 

Terry’s story was the same for all the other Tuskegee Airmen instructors. Perry Young, a black co-worker and fellow instructor. They sent out  applications to every commercial airline but never got past the first interview when it became obvious they were black. It took over a decade of fighting racism when Perry Young (Terry’s co-worker) finally landed a job with New York Airways. Flying a Sikorsky S-58 , he was the first black pilot employed by a U.S. airline.

Basking Ridge

“My father was in the air more than he was on the ground,” said Terry’s son Qaaim Saalik (Robert Terry Jr. changed his name along with his Muslim faith). Many local residents wrote us stating that Terry’s skill as a pilot won him an exemption from prejudice in Bernards. It was a different story when Terry applied to major airlines for work as a commercial pilot. In each instance, he was turned down. He never landed a commercial pilot job at a major airline.

1959 aerial photo of the Somerset Hills Airport. You can see the Terry house just off Lord Stirling Road north of the airfield (upper left).
Source: Paul Downing.

There was a house set back from the road directly opposite the airport on Lord Stirling Rd.the airport owner was good friends with Mr Terry and had helped him settle in that home just behind the airport at 16 Lord Stirling Road. His wife as I remember worked as a nurse at the newly built Veterans Hospital in nearby Lyons.

Deborah L.ewis – Basking Ridge
The Terry house no longer stands, but once sat just across the street from the former Somerset Hills Airport, which the town also lost in 1981.

Bob Terry lived across from the airport on Lord Stirling Road behind the airport. He was a friend of my dad. Dad said he could fly anything. I believe he was a training officer for the airmen. I think he retired after flying for Strategic Air Command flying bombers as a Lieutenant Colonel.

Jim McArthur, Basking Ridge Resident

Robert Terry Sr. died in 1958 at the age of 45 of pneumonia, when Qaaim Saalik was only 11. Saalik remembers when he turned 18 and his mother, Estelle who packed parachutes at Tuskegee and was a licensed pilot herself, handed him a collection photos and press releases on the men his father helped train. 

Seated from left, Tuskegee airman George Bolden, Estelle Terry widow of Capt. Robert Terry and airman Eugene Richardson, are interviewed by the Terrys’ son Qaaim Saalik yesterday. ‘ON CLOUD NINE’ Video documents black WWII Air Corps for 1st time. Source: Warren Record 1996

Sixty-six airmen died in action. “These brave men and women have set the perfect example for our children to learn how drive and determination can overcome almost any obstacle,” DuPont said. DuPont learned how to fly at the Somerset Hills Airfield in Basking Ridge, which Robert Terry helped build and was chief flight instructor at before and after World War II.

Joseph DuPont; learned how to fly at the Basking Ridge Airport with Robert Terry and provided facilities to document the early portions of Qaaim Saalik’s documentary.

Robert’s son Qaaia Saalik became the executive director of a multimedia project on the African-American Pilots of World War II. The documentary film was never completed.

Other Notable Instructors

“The Chief” Tuskegee Instructor

Charles Alfred Anderson, Sr. from Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania was an American aviator who is known as the Father of Black Aviation. He earned the nickname “Chief” as chief flight instructor of the Tuskegee Airmen.

In 1940, Anderson was recruited by the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, to serve as the Chief Civilian Flight Instructor for its new program to train black pilots. He developed a pilot training program, taught the Program’s first advanced course, and earned his nickname, “Chief”. In March 1941. By June 1941, Anderson was selected by the Army as Tuskegee’s Ground Commander and Chief Instructor for aviation cadets of the 99th Pursuit Squadron, America’s first all-black fighter squadron.

Tuskegee Airmen in The Movies

You have to admit, when George Lucas Films get involved, you know the movie is going to be big. Here are just two of the many stories that were filmed honoring the Tuskegee Airmen.

The film Red Tails launched in 2012.
The Tuskegee Airmen film debuted in 1995 with Laurence Fishburne.

“We performed ably and well,” he said. “There’s so much human waste: waste of minds, waste of talent. As a result, we lose a lot of talent. We lose a lot of our greatness.”

Thomas Tindall, the Tuskegee lesson is that prejudice harms every part of society, not just those who are discriminated against.

Side Notes

The new USAF T-7A Red Hawk, a new tribute to the legendary Tuskegee Airmen and the airplanes they flew. One of the last surviving Tuskegee Airmen, Charles McGee, joined Acting Secretary of the Air Force Matthew Donovan to announce the Red Tails name. Source: USAF 2019
Robert’s son Qaaim Saalik (Bob Terry Jr.) was an accomplished artist showcasing his Great Swamp Stoneware . This photo is from July 1975. Bob later changed his name to Qaaim Saalik. Bernardsville News.
  • Mr Local History digs into the history of the lost airport a town lost The Somerset Hills Airport.
  • The Tuskegee Airmen flew hundreds of patrol and attack missions for the Twelfth Air Force, flying P-40 and P-39 airplanes, before they were reassigned to the 15th Air Force to escort B-17 and B-24 heavy bombers, using P-47 and P-51 airplanes.Combat aircraft of the Tuskegee Airmen.
  • There were 992 Tuskegee Airmen pilots trained at Tuskegee, including single-engine fighter pilots, twin-engine bomber pilots, and liaison and service pilots, but the total number of Tuskegee Airmen, counting ground personnel such as aircraft mechanics and logistical personnel, was more than 14,000.
  • The Tuskegee Airmen pilots are most remembered for flying fighters in the Mediterranean theater, first for the Twelfth Air Force, under which they flew hundreds of missions, then for the Fifteenth Air Force. 
  • The total number of Tuskegee Airmen-escorted bombers shot down by enemy fighters, by my research, was 27, while the average number lost by each of the other six fighter escort groups in the Fifteenth Air Force was 46.
  • In late March 1941, Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of the President, visited Tuskegee and flew with a Black pilot at the civilian pilot training facility of Tuskegee Institute.
  • Some of the white officers at Tuskegee Army Air Field were very supportive of the Black military flight training. Others in higher places were not eager to see the Black military pilots serve in combat overseas, after they were trained, and resisted their deployment.
  • https://www.nationalww2museum.org/war/articles/tuskegee-airmen-interview-daniel-haulman
  • Estelle Terry, 93, died on July 12, 2009, in Salem, Alabama. Born in South Orange, Estelle was predeceased by her husband, Robert and sister, Cleo. She is survived by son, Qaaim Saalik, and grandchildren, Malika Ra and Ramdasha Bikceem.
  • Dr. Qaaim Saalik graduated from the University of Arizona with a degree in fine arts. He was also a professor at Seton Hall University. He also started a pottery company called the Great Swamp Pottery Company in the 80s.
  • Of the graduates, 352 pilots deployed overseas (Europe) for
  • combat duty.
  • The total number of Tuskegee Airmen-escorted bombers shot down by enemy fighters, by my research, was 27, while the average number lost by each of the other six fighter escort groups in the Fifteenth Air Force was 46.
  • In late March 1941, Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of the President, visited Tuskegee and flew with a Black pilot at the civilian pilot training facility of Tuskegee Institute.
  • Some of the white officers at Tuskegee Army Air Field were very supportive of the Black military flight training. Others in higher places were not eager to see the Black military pilots serve in combat overseas, after they were trained, and resisted their deployment.
  • Book: Training the Best; Charles Herbert Flowers, Jr. Tuskegee Airman Flight Instructor Paperback – January 1, 2009
  • WW2 National War Museum interview with Tuskegee Airmen Daniel Haulman
  • Tuskegee AAF closed August 20, 1946.

Tuskegee Pilots from New Jersey

929 pilots (American) are listed as graduates of the Tuskegee Institute and the Tuskegee Experiment. Of that number 46 were from New Jersey, with Essex County and Jersey City leading the way.

Following each name is their class number, graduation date, rank held at Tuskegee, serial number, and hometown. This list DOES NOT include the names of all individuals who PARTICIPATED IN the Tuskegee Airmen pilot training program or support operations.  Individuals who have documented proof that they participated in the Tuskegee Airmen experience are also called “Documented Original Tuskegee Airmen (DOTA).”

Pilot
Alexander, Walter G. 45-D-SE 6/27/1945 2nd Lt. 0842999 Orange NJ
Ashby, Robert 45-H-TE 11/20/1945 2nd Lt. 0843351 Jersey City NJ
Bell, John J. 44-I-SE 11/20/1944 Flt. Officer T67141 Jersey City NJ
Black, Samuel A. 43-K-TE 12/5/1943 2nd Lt. 0817595 Plainfield NJ
Bynum, Rolin A. 44-A-TE 1/7/1944 2nd Lt. 0819447 Montclair NJ
Carpenter, Russell W. 44-I-SE 11/20/1944 2nd Lt. 0839085 Plainfield NJ
Chambers, Charles W. 46-A-SE 3/23/1946 2nd Lt. 02102097 Camden NJ
Clayton, Melvin A. 45-A-TE 3/11/1945 2nd Lt. 0841268 Salem NJ
Connell, Victor L. 45-D-SE 6/27/1945 2nd Lt. 0843003 Nutley NJ
Dabney, Roscoe J., Jr. 45-F-TE 9/8/1945 2nd Lt. 0843244 Lakewood NJ
Driver, Elwood T. 42-I-SE 10/9/1942 2nd Lt. 0792781 Trenton NJ
Dunne, Charles A. 43-H-SE 8/30/1943 2nd Lt. 0811277 Atlantic City NJ
Exum, Herven P. 44-I-1-TE 10/16/1944 Flt. Officer T66409 Wilson NJ
Gaiter, Roger Bertram 44-B-SE 2/8/1944 2nd Lt. 0821910 Seaside Hgts. NJ
Glenn, Joshua 44-K-SE 2/1/1945 Flt. Officer T68703 Newark NJ
Govan, Claude B. 43-B-SE 2/16/1943 2nd Lt. 0797219 Newark NJ
Griffin, Frank 45-I-SE 1/29/1946 Flt. Officer T149962 Asbury Park NJ
Harris, Archie H., Jr. 44-K-TE 2/1/1945 2nd Lt. 0841163 Ocean City NJ
Hawkins, Thomas L. 44-E-SE 5/23/1944 Flt. Officer T63113 Glen Rock NJ
Henry, Warren E. 44-H-TE 9/8/1944 2nd Lt. 0838037 Plainfield NJ
Jenkins, Edward M. 45-A-SE 3/11/1945 2nd Lt. 0841267 Nudey NJ
Johnson, Clarence 45-D-SE 6/27/1945 2nd Lt. 0843006 Newark NJ
Lawrence, Robert W. 44-F-SE 6/27/1944 2nd Lt. 01640660 Bloomfield NJ
Mason, Vincent 43-J-SE 11/3/1943 2nd Lt. 0814820 Orange NJ
Miller, Charles E. 44-I-1-SE 10/16/1944 2nd Lt. 0838156 Plainfield NJ
Pennington, Robert F. 45-B-SE 4/15/1945 Flt. Officer T69745 Little Silver NJ
Rice, Clayo C. 45-A-SE 3/11/1945 2nd Lt. 0841260 Bridgetown NJ
Rice, Price D. 42-I-SE 10/9/1942 2nd Lt. 0792786 Montclair NJ
Rich, Daniel L. 44-D-SE 4/15/1944 2nd Lt. 0828057 Rutherford NJ
Richardson, Eugene J., Jr. 45-A-SE 3/11/1945 2nd Lt. 0841261 Camden NJ
Robinson, Spencer M. 45-A-SE 3/11/1945 2nd Lt. 0841262 Monroe NJ
Rodgers, Marion R. 44-B-SE 2/8/1944 2nd Lt. 0821920 Elizabeth NJ
Scott, Floyd R., Jr. 45-F-SE 9/8/1945 Flt. Officer T70423 Asbury Park NJ
Scott, Henry B. 43-I-SE 10/1/1943 2nd Lt. 0814206 Jersey City NJ
Shults, Lloyd R. 44-D-TE 4/15/1944 2nd Lt. 0828044 N. Plainfield NJ
Smith, Albert H. 45-A-SE 3/11/1945 Flt. Officer T68758 Jersey City NJ
Spann, Calvin J. 44-G-SE 8/4/1944 Flt. Officer T64642 Rutherford NJ
Street, Thomas C. 44-G-SE 8/4/1944 2nd Lt. 0835415 Springfield NJ
Talton, James E. 45-F-TE 9/8/1945 Flt. Officer T136691 Merchantville NJ
Walker, William C., Jr. 44-E-SE 5/23/1944 2nd Lt. 0830795 Atlantic City NJ
Wanamaker, Geo, rge , , E. 45-C-S, E 5/23/1945 Flt. Officer T69980 Montclair NJ
Washington, Morris J. 44-I-TE 11/20/1944 Flt. Officer T67157 Atlantic City NJ
Watson, Spann 42-F-SE 7/3/1942 2nd Lt. 0790467 Hackensack NJ
Wilkerson, William G. 43-F-SE 6/30/1943 2nd Lt. 0807113 Camden NJ
Willette, Leonard R. 44-B-SE 2/8/1944 Flt. Officer T62308 Belleville NJ
Williams, Raymond L. 45-D-SE 6/27/1945 Flt. Officer T70109 Jersey City NJ
Tuskegee Airmen Graduates from New Jersey

929 – American pilot graduates
5 – Haitian pilot graduates
11 – Instructor pilot graduates
51 – Liaison pilot graduates
Total pilot graduates: 996 (686 SE graduates and 248 TE graduates
American and Haitian only).
[SE = Single Engine (fighter) and TE = Twin Engine (bomber)]
There were 44 classes that graduated during the “Tuskegee
Experience.”

Tuskegee Airmen Graduates from New Jersey
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