Lieutenant-Colonel Lee Archer, who died on January 27 aged 90, was a member of America’s segregated „Tuskegee” air corps and recognised as the only black fighter „ace” during the Second World War; subjected to racial discrimination and prejudice, both within and outside the Army, he and his comrades none the less served their country with great distinction.
Strict racial segregation existed when Archer volunteered to be a pilot. He and like-minded African-Americans were at first rejected because many people thought black men lacked intelligence, skill, courage and patriotism. Eventually, in June 1941, a series of legislative moves by the US Congress forced the Army Air Corps to form an all-black combat unit, despite the War Department’s reluctance. The pilots trained at a segregated Army Air Corps unit at Tuskegee Army Airfield, Alabama, and for ever more became known as the „Tuskegee Airmen”.
Lee A Archer was born on September 6 1919 in Yonkers and raised in New York’s Harlem district. He left New York University to enlist in the air corps in 1941 but, after rejection, trained in the infantry and then as a signaller. In December 1942 he was accepted for pilot training and left for Tuskegee. He graduated in July 1943, first in the order of merit, and was commissioned as a second lieutenant.
Archer was assigned to 302nd Fighter Squadron of 332nd Fighter Group, the USAAF’s first all-black unit, which had been formed amid great controversy in October 1942. The group moved to Italy early in February 1944 and soon began operations flying the Bell P-39 Airacobra on ground attack missions before converting to the P-51 Mustang, when their main role was to provide close escort to the USAAF’s heavy bomber forces. In their red-tailed Mustangs they developed a reputation as one of the war’s most effective fighter escort groups. It was claimed that they never lost a bomber, but postwar research suggests this might be a slight exaggeration. Nevertheless, the „Red Tails” earned near-mythic status.
On July 18 1944 they flew their first escort for a large formation of B-24 bombers. When a fierce air battle ensued over southern Germany, eleven Messerschmitt Bf 109s were shot down, one by Archer. The long-range Mustangs were able to accompany the bombers all the way to the target and back, and the bomber pilots always felt safe once their „little friends” had joined the formation. Many were unaware that all their „friends” were black airmen.
On October 22 1944 Archer took part in a sweep along the Danube. With his leader, he was attacking a Heinkel bomber when seven Messerschmitts appeared on the scene. In the ensuing battle, Archer shot down three of them, the last as it attempted to land.
The „Red Tails” escorted bomber formations to attack the oilfields of Romania, rail yards in Austria and on long-range operations to Regensburg and Munich. Archer shared in the destruction of another Messerschmitt and he was also credited with destroying six enemy aircraft on the ground, in addition to several locomotives, motor transports and barges. By the end of the war he had flown 169 missions.
The Tuskegee Airmen proved their racist detractors wrong. They were credited with shooting down 109 enemy aircraft and they proved some of the USAAF’s best pilots, many going on to win high rank once segregation in the military was ended in 1948.
Despite their prowess, few gallantry medals were received though Archer was awarded the DFC, the Air Medal with 18 clusters and a Distinguished Unit Commendation.
Archer retired from the USAAF in 1970. He joined General Foods Corporation, becoming one of the era’s few black vice-presidents of major American companies. He was an adviser on the deal that created the conglomerate TLC Beatrice in 1987, then the largest black-owned and managed business in the US. After retiring from General Foods in 1987, he founded the venture capital firm Archer Asset Management.
In 2005 Archer and three of his Tuskegee colleagues flew to Iraq to address active duty airmen serving in the current 332nd Group.
Archer lived long enough to see the service of Tuskegee airmen fully, if belatedly, acknowledged. In March 2007, about 350 airmen and widows received the Congressional Gold Medal of Honour from President George W Bush at a ceremony in the US Capitol. The present-day 99th Flying Training Squadron’s aircraft are adorned with red tails in honour of the black airmen. Many streets and parklands bear their name, and in August 2008 the city of Atlanta officially renamed a portion of the state’s Route 6 in their honour.
On December 9, 2008 Archer and the remaining Tuskegee Airmen were invited to attend the inauguration of Barack Obama.
Honoured by the American Fighter Pilots’ Association, Archer was described by a colleague as „extremely competent, sometimes stubborn but with a heart of gold. He treated people with respect and demanded respect by the way he carried himself.”
Lee Archer’s wife Ina, whose name adorned the nose of his Mustang, died in 1996. He is survived by three sons and a daughter.