The Life of an Original Tuskegee Airman: Curtis Christopher Robinson

Aviator Signs Books Periodically at the Air and Space Museum

Curtis Christopher Robinson sat at a den table. Pictures of fighter planes that he flew during World War II hung on the wall behind him. The former Tuskeegee Airman still has the bearing of a soldier at 88 years old.

Even with thin gray hair, Robinson remains striking and resembles the aviator in the living room photograph, which is surrounded by other World War II memorabilia.

Robinson is currently a pharmacist and assists customers at his pharmacy in Southeast Washington, D.C. He also co-owns Robnor Publishing, LLC along with author George Norfleet. Earlier this year, the two published Robinson’s autobiography, “A Pilot’s Journey.”

On this particular afternoon, Robinson relived his experience as a Tuskegee Airman. He leaned forward and began to tell the story of how he became a part of American history.

Robinson spent his youth in South Carolina before joining the Air Force. As a youth, Robinson had always been interested in getting an education. After completing high school, Robinson attended Claflin College. His grandfather graduated from college in 1873, went into politics and later became a minister at an AME church. All of his grandfather’s children graduated from Claflin College.

Upon graduating from Claflin College, Robinson taught in Spartanburg County, S.C., in the fall of 1940. He taught math, general science, history and geography.

“I began to like teaching,” Robinson said. “I didn’t want to teach at first, but after I started, I liked teaching and I think I got to be a pretty good teacher.”

However, Robinson’s teaching career was short lived. World War II began a new chapter in history as well as a new chapter in Robinson’s life. Blacks were not initially allowed to fight in the war. The war department and War College thought blacks would not be able to perform required military duties and deemed them human beings of a lesser intelligence. Towards the end of his administration, President Franklin D. Roosevelt decided to integrate the Armed Forces.

As blacks were gradually drafted into the military, Robinson toured Camp Penn, the army base in Spartanburg County. While in Spartanburg, he observed blacks performing menial duties that were not part of basic training. He also heard the blacks referring to the officers as “Captain Boss.”

This memory agitated Robinson. He recalled, “I didn’t want to get into that. I’d rather go to any place to avoid that.”

Robinson soon found out about the Tuskegee Air Force through a friend. It took him over a year to hear from the Tuskegee Air Force after he received an acceptance letter. When the Army Air Corps finally contacted him, they told him to report to Shaw Air Force Base in Sumter, S.C.

Robinson was sworn in and inducted at the Shaw Air Force Base, but was sent home because they did not know what to do with the blacks. Until the classes at Tuskegee were formed, traveling back and forth cost Robinson a lot of money. In August 1942, Robinson began his cadet training at Tuskegee.

“I wasn’t interested in planes,” Robinson said. “I had only seen one airplane on the ground prior to that. So, I wasn’t interested in any airplanes.”

Robinson had not thought about being a pilot before the war, but he quickly caught on and became skilled at flying planes. In primary, he flew an open cockpit, bi-wing plane with 90 horsepower and flew a cover cockpit 350 horsepower plane in basic training. As the pilots in training advanced, the planes they flew increased in speed and allowed them to do more.

“My favorite maneuver was the snap roll because it was difficult to do, and you had to be very precise,” Robinson said with a smile.

He showed off this maneuver to his aunt as a stunt once. It did not go as planned and while landing, he fell short of running in to her and a neighbor.

“I almost killed her. That really stuck in my mind. I never told her the truth, no. She came back the next day and she said, ‘You sure can fly a plane.’ I told her I can pray too,” Robinson said laughing.

During training, Robinson said that he was motivated to do well.

“I come from a small college,” he said. “All my classmates came from these big institutions like Chicago University or Indiana or UCLA or those types of schools. They used to tease me about coming from a small college so it had made me want to stay there and do much better than I normally would have done.”

The “washout” rate at the Tuskegee Cadet Program was very high. Many of the cadets did not graduate. Robinson, however, was fortunate enough to complete the program and graduated in April 1943.

After graduation, Robinson was assigned to the 99th Fighter Squadron. According to “A Pilot’s Journey,” it took him and a couple of other cadets six weeks to catch up with their squadron in Italy. Because the 99th Flight Squadron was constantly being moved, they spent those six weeks on a wild goose chase through numerous cities in Europe.

Many black squadrons were attached to white squadrons, but the white squadrons did not want to fly with black pilots. Certain officers, such as Captain Momyer of the 79th Fighter group, tried to get rid of the black pilots.

The 99th Fighter Squadron mainly performed dive bombings and random strafing missions. These small missions did not gain them any victories. However, they won one of their first victories while patrolling the coast between the Ponziane Island and the beach that was under attack.

The 99th Fighter Squadron ran into German planes. In “A Pilot’s Journey,” Robinson spoke of his fight with one of the Germans.

“I began diving and started gaining on him, and I began to shoot volleys of fire at him,” he said. “I saw a large puff of black smoke coming out from his plane and I shouted, ‘I got him.'”

All of their formation remained in tact, and they had taken out four or five of the German planes.

“We didn’t get recognition here in the [United] States,” Robinson said. “We got some recognition over in Italy [from] the British and the Italians and the French. The Americans didn’t pay us any attention even though we had scored several victories.”

Blacks were not recognized in their own country – the one for they were fighting.

“It felt kind of odd and it made you kind of angry because in Naples, there was a hotel that had at least 75 American reporters there at their airport and not one came out to investigate what was going on,” he said. “The British came out. You can’t let that get to you. You’ll never make it.”

After the war ended and Robinson returned to the United States, he moved to Washington, D.C. and married Florie Frederick Robinson. He applied for a pilot position at an airport in the Washington, D.C. area, but they refused to hand out applications to blacks.

Robinson returned to college and attended Howard University’s School of Pharmacy. After graduating, he opened his own pharmacy. In addition to running the pharmacy, Robinson takes the time out to sign books at the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

George Norfleet, the author of Robinson’s book, said, “I wanted to help Mr. Robinson publish his story because there is more to know about the Tuskegee Airmen than their success as [fighter] pilots. They were the products of their families, institutions and value systems.”

During his book signings, Robinson wears his red Tuskegee Airmen blazer and tells museum visitors about his career as a Tuskegee Airman. He greets them by saying, “I am one of the original Tuskegee Airmen.”

Paula Adel, a manager at the Air and Space Museum, described Robinson as, “A truly great man. The staff always looks forward to his visits because he is one of the most pleasant, humble men I have ever had the pleasure of meeting.”