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Colonel Vernon Haywood

Summary of a 1989 oral history by Carolyn Daniels; 1996

Vernon Haywood was born in Raleigh, North Carolina on October 24, 1920. He is the youngest of seven children. His father worked for the railroad as a brakeman.

Haywood was interested in airplanes from an early age. He recalls one incident that is still vivid in his memory, "We were out playing one night when an airship -- it was called a dirigible at the time -- a giant airship came over. It was really spectacular because none of us had ever seen anything like that! It was flying quite low and it was lit up quite spectacularly. It looked like a big lighted sausage up there with windows in it. It was really fascinating and I think from that moment on I sort of got the bug."

After graduating from high school in 1938, Haywood enrolled at the historical Black college, Hampton Institute (now Hampton University) in Virginia. Hampton was one of six Black colleges which offered civilian pilot training programs in the late 1930's. He enrolled in education courses and a 40-hour flying program, the Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP). Haywood left Hampton Institute temporarily in 1941 to enroll in the secondary phase of the CPTP at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Only the top students were selected for this additional training. At the end of training, Haywood chose to pursue a military career with the Army Air Corps. In April 1943, Haywood graduated as a second lieutenant and received his silver wings. Only two classes had graduated prior to his enrollment in the program. Lt. Haywood became one of the famous "Tuskegee Airmen".

Lt. Haywood was assigned to the 332nd Fighter Group, an all Black unit at Selfridge Field in Michigan. Just before Christmas in 1943 they were shipped to Italy to help fight World War II. In Italy, his unit joined other Black squadrons: the original 99th Pursuit Squadron from Tuskegee, the 100th, 301st, and 302nd. The latter three squadrons made up the 332nd Fighter Group commanded by General Benjamin O Davis, Jr..

While overseas, Haywood flew fighter aircraft including P-39s, P-47s, and P-51s. Their mission included escort duty for bomber aircraft as well as direct combat. Not a single bomber was lost to the enemy when planes were escorted by the 332nd Fighter Group. In 1943 he was promoted to first lieutenant and to captain the next year. Additional promotions followed: Flight Commander, Operations Officer and Commander of the 302nd. In 1945, after 70 combat missions in WW II and 356 combat hours, Haywood returned to the states.

After the war, Haywood served as Assistant Director of the Instrument School at Tuskegee. He was later assigned to the 477th Bombardment Group at Lockbourne Ohio. After the desegregation of the military in 1948, Haywood and 3 other black officers were assigned to Williams Air Force Base in Chandler, Arizona as jet pilot instructors. After 4 years at Williams, Haywood served in Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam. In 1966, Haywood was assigned to Davis Monthan Air Force base in Tucson, where he commanded the 4454th Fighter Squadron which flew F-4 phantom jets. He would see duty in Vietnam in 1969, although he was no longer flying, and returned to Davis Monthan in 1970. He retired as a Full Colonel in October 1971.

After retiring, Haywood received his B.S. degree in Public Management from the University of Arizona in 1976. Col. Haywood is married to Alma, a nurse who was a captain in the Air Force for 10 years. His son, Vernon Jr., is also a graduate of the University of Arizona. Col. Haywood's distinguished military career clearly shows his bravery, patriotism and leadership.

Summary of an interview with Colonel (Retired) Vernon Haywood
by Carolyn Daniels; 1989

Col. Haywood was interviewed by Carolyn Daniels, an intern in the African American History Internship Project. The theme for this year's project was "African Americans in Aviation in Arizona." Carolyn also wrote this summary.

Col. Haywood was interviewed in his home on May 3, 1989. A cassette tape of the entire interview is housed at the Arizona Historical Society. Except for partial blindness, Col. Haywood, at age 69, appears to be fit enough to still fly airplanes. At six feet and two inches tall, he is still lean. This even tempered man talks easily and forcefully about his experiences as a pioneer African American aviator. His voice is strong, and his memory is vivid. He has a good sense of humor which positively benefited him when he was discriminated against and when he was in war torn areas. He was very cooperative and provided detailed accounts of what it was like to be one of the first Blacks to embark upon a career in a branch of the armed forces that was off limits to African Americans until World War II.

Col. Haywood was born in Raleigh, North Carolina on October 24, 1920. He is the youngest of seven children. His father worked for the railroad as a brakeman while his mother stayed home and took care of the children. He grew up in Raleigh and completed high school there in segregated facilities. Segregation and discrimination were common in Raleigh. Col. Haywood said that "segregation was the law of the land." As a child he developed an early interest in airplanes. He recalls the following incident from his early experiences, "I was first interested in it [aviation] when we were out playing one night when a, an airship--it was called a dirigible at that time--a giant airship came over while we were out playing hide and go seek. It was--it was really spectacular because none of us had never seen anything like that! It was flying quite low, and ah, it was lit up, quite spectacularly, and, ah, just looked like a big lighted sausage up there with windows in it; and it was really fascinating, and I think from that moment on I -- I sort of got the bug." Also not far from Col. Haywood's home was the airport where he spent many hours watching planes take off and land as he daydreamed of someday becoming a pilot. In reaction to these experiences he said, "The bug just got me, and I decided that I -- that I wanted to fly."

After graduating from high school in 1938, Col. Haywood enrolled at the historical Black college, Hampton Institute (now Hampton University) in Hampton, Virginia. It would not be easy for a Black man to realize his goal of becoming a pilot, particularly a military pilot since African Americans were barred from the Air Corps in 1938. However, Col. Haywood pursued his dream. At Hampton, one of the six Black colleges which offered civilian pilot training programs in the late 1930s, he enrolled in education courses and a 40-hourflying program, the Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP). All of the instructors in the flying program were White. In addition to his education courses and flying program, the colonel was working his way through college. Work was about the only financial aid that African American students knew in the late 1930s.

Col. Haywood temporarily left Hampton in 1941 to enroll in the secondary phase of the CPTP at Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University) in Tuskegee, Alabama. This program was at Tuskegee because the War Department was building an airfield there which would eventually train Black pilots for the Army Air Corps. Only the top three students from the various college programs would be selected. Unlike the program at Hampton where all the instructors were White, here they were all Black. Toward the end of this training period he was offered the opportunity to teach with some of the best of his fellow students. Instead, Col. Haywood chose to pursue a military career with the Army Air Corps. He received his certificate of completion for flying in 1941. He was still at Tuskegee during the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

After completing his training program at Tuskegee Col. Haywood returned to Hampton to finish college. However, in August, 1942 he was called into the Army Air Corps. He returned to Tuskegee as a cadet. As a civilian he lived on campus. Now he was stationed at the airfield some miles away where he trained in PT-Stearman airplanes. He was now 22 years old. In April, 1943 he graduated as a second lieutenant and received his silver wings. Only two classes had graduated prior to his enrollment in the program. Lt. Haywood had become one of the famous "Tuskegee Airmen" which he remains until this day, an original charter member. In becoming a Tuskegee airman, he joined the ranks that include such impressive names as Benjamin 0. Davis, Jr. (retired) who became the commander of the 332nd Fighter Group, the unit which Col. Haywood served in during World War II. General Davis would be the first Black person to attain that rank in the Air Force. Another famous Air Force general passed through Tuskegee, Daniel "Chappie" James, Jr. (deceased) who became the first Black four-star general in the Air Force and at one point was commander of the North American Defense Command (NORAD), a position, according to Watkins (1977), that gave him the emergency authority to deploy nuclear weapons without presidential approval.

Col. Haywood was part of an experiment which held the negative hypothesis that Blacks did not have the intellectual capacity nor the physical and emotional courage to fly. Apparently the United States government had forgotten that Black men had distinguished themselves in the military and in wars since our own revolutionary war with England. They had disproved the negative hypothesis many times, and Lt. Haywood would make sure it was disproved in the aviation area.

While training at Hampton, the colonel recalled many interesting experiences. In the early days when all of the instructors were White, he recalled a Bill Seamans from Pennsylvania, his first instructor, whose initial goal was to help the government prove that Blacks couldn't fly. "You were almost eliminated before you ever got started," said Col. Haywood. He went on to cite the following account of his first flight with Mr. Seamans in a piper cub:

... One of the first things they did was when you went out to pull your first flight, after showing you around the airplane, they'd give you a paper bag, and, ah, so you'd have some place to toss your cookies when you got sick [threw up]; and ah, and I never will forget that day I went out and, ah, ...I met Mr. Seamans, and, ah, he just introduced himself and said, 'I understand you think you can fly...' and gave me the paper bag and said, 'Well you might as well take this cause you are going to get sick like everybody else.' And that, that kind of, that got me... That got my hackles up right then and there, and I just decided that I wasn't gonna get sick.

While in the air Mr. Seamans put the plane through all kinds of maneuvers trying to make the colonel sick. Though Col. Haywood came close to throwing up, he had already made up his mind that rather than regurgitating in the bag and letting Mr. Seamans see it, he would swallow it first. He was forced to swallow "just a little bit" as Mr. Seamans watched from his rearview mirror. When they landed Mr. Seamans asked for the bag, and Col. Haywood gave it to him still folded. The instructor replied, "I guess you are ready to go then, aren't you?"

After this flight, Col. Haywood and Mr. Seamans gained respect for each other and enjoyed many experiences together. On occasion Mr. Seamans, a former student at the University of Virginia, ordered his trainee to fly over the girl's dormitory so that he could see the girls sunbathing on the roof. Initially Mr. Seamans suggested that Col. Haywood should not look at the females, but pretty soon decided that his pupil was also deserving of a look.

All was not bad in the South in the early 1940s. Col. Haywood told of being lost while on a solo flight from Tuskegee Airfield, and since he was running low on fuel he landed in a pasture. This was near the home of a wealthy man from Detroit, Michigan who was living in his winter home in Alabama. The owner had him picked up by a chauffeur in a limousine, fed him milk and cookies (in the kitchen), called the air base, and let him wait there until someone from the base picked him up by car.

Following his training at Tuskegee, Col. Haywood joined the 332nd Fighter group, an all Black unit, at Selfridge Field, Michigan for further training. Just before Christmas, 1943 they were shipped to Italy to help right World War 11. In Italy his unit reunited with other Black squadrons: the original 99th Pursuit Squadron from Tuskegee, the 100th, 301st, and the 302nd. The latter three squadrons made up the 332nd Fighter Group that General Benjamin 0. Davis Jr. commanded.

While overseas Col. Haywood flew fighter aircraft; they were: P-39s, P-47s, and P51s. Their mission included escort duty for bomber aircraft (B-17 and B-24s) as well as direct combat. Not a single bomber plane was lost to the enemy during the war when the plane was escorted by members of the 332nd. Their casualties were also low, particularly in comparison with other units. His flights took him to such places as Rumania, Germany, Eastern Poland, the edge of Russia, Vienna, and southern France. In 1943 Lt. Haywood was promoted to first lieutenant and to captain the next year. The promotions came as he moved up the ladder in position: Flight Commander, Operations Officer, and Commander of the 302nd. After 70 combat missions in World War II and 356 combat hours, Col. Haywood returned to the states in 1945.

As the war came to a close, some of the Black units were deactivated. The 302nd Squadron which Col. Haywood had commanded was the first of the Black squadrons to go. Once again the colonel found himself back at Tuskegee, this time as Assistant Director of the Instrument school. However, Tuskegee Airfield was soon closed, and the colonel joined the other Black squadrons, including the 477th Bombardment Group at Lockbourne in Ohio in 1946. As the Black squadrons closed down, the armed forces were planning another experiment called "Integration." On July 28, 1948 President Harry S. Truman signed Executive Order #9981 which would eventually end official segregation in the armed forces. It was the integration of the armed forces that brought Col. Haywood to Arizona for the first time at the age of 29. In 1949, the colonel, along with three other Black officers: Henry Perry, Lewis Lench, and John.

Whitehead was assigned to Williams Air Force Base in Chandler. These four officers became Arizona's first Black jet instructors as well as the first African American Pilots!

After spending four years in Chandler, Col. Haywood headed overseas again, this time to Japan. He also spent time in the Philippines and Vietnam. Promotions continued along with many assignments.

In 1966 Lt. Colonel Haywood was assigned to Davis Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, Arizona where he commanded the 4454th Fighter Squadron which flew F-4 phantom jets. He would see duty in Vietnam in 1969 (by now he was no longer flying) before returning to Davis Monthan in 1970 where he retired as Full Colonel in October, 1971. He had flown more than 6000 hours in fighter airplanes. In 1964, prior to retiring Col. Haywood had received his college degree through the Boot Strap program in Basic General Education from the University of Nebraska in Omaha, and after retiring he received his B.S. degree in Public Management from the University of Arizona in 1976.

Though Col. Haywood encountered discrimination in and outside of the military, he took it in stride. He did not allow racism to deter him from achieving his goals.

Col. Haywood is married to Alma, a nurse who was a captain in the Air Force for 10 years. Colonel Haywood has a son, Vernon Jr., who is also a graduate of the University of Arizona. The colonel and his family reside in Tucson where he is a member of the Tuskegee Airmen and an active member in the community.

Because Col. Haywood and other pioneers passed the aviation test, because they disproved the negative hypothesis, and because they passed the integration test, African American men and women are now able to participate in any type of aviation they choose. We members of the Arizona Historical Internship Project salute you colonel.