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Aviation Pioneer from Upstate New York Helped Break Military Color Barrier

During World War II, Lt. Col. George Haley flew combat missions with the famed Tuskegee Airmen. The actions of Lt. Col. Haley and the other Tuskegee Airmen paved the way for other African-Americans in the military and led to the ultimate desegregation of the military in 1948.


George Haley grew up in the small Upstate town of Bath, New York. As a young man, Haley attended Haverling High School, and it was there that he first cultivated a passion for art. To this day, a mural that Haley painted depicting high school life still resides in the district.Haley’s father, Percy Haley, owned a barbershop and hunting kennel in Bath, and his mother Grace was a beautician.“Their hard work gave my father a strong work ethic and sense of responsibility,” says James Haley, George Haley’s son.George Haley grew up during the 1920s and 30s when the Ku Klux Klan was at the apex of its power and popularity across the county. For a number of years the headquarters of the New York State chapter of the KKK was actually located just a few hours east of Bath in Binghamton. According to Kirk House, Director of the Steuben County Historical Society, Percy and Grace Haley were extremely active in campaigning against the KKK in the area.“One of the things they did was go around and visit the mayors,” explains House. “To try and get them to stop Ku Klux Klan activities.”After high school, George Haley enrolled at Syracuse University where he continued to study art. World War II interrupted Haley’s studies and in 1942 Haley, like many other young men, left college to join the military.


Haley volunteered for the Tuskegee Airmen Program. The Tuskegee Airmen were the first African-American aviators in the American military. Prior to World War II, discriminatory policies had barred African-Americans from becoming pilots in the armed forces.

“My father naturally wanted to be one of the pioneers breaking the color barrier,” explains James Haley. “African Americans had been flying aircraft privately in barnstorming circuses, crop dusting, and any other odd flying jobs that existed but the racist polices of the armed forces had prevented any progress.”The Army, under pressure from Civil Rights activists and Congress, started the Tuskegee Program in 1939 as an experiment.“This was a very well guarded secret,” explains Christine Biggers, a Park Ranger at the Tuskegee National Historic Site.  “It was an experiment but it was not widely known, and part of that was because if it didn’t succeed it could have easily been swept under the rug.”According to Biggers, while the program trained over 900 pilots during the war the moniker of Tuskegee Airmen also applied to the nearly 19,000 support personal who passed through the program. This included mechanics, nurses, cooks, and the white training officers.“Anybody who participated in this military experiment set up by the Army are called Tuskegee Airmen,” states Biggers. 


Listen to Christine Biggers, a Park Ranger at the Tuskegee National Historic Site, discuss the roles women played in the Tuskegee Airmen Program.


The U.S. military was racially segregated at the time. As a result, all of the Tuskegee recruits, including George Haley, were sent to Moton Field near Tuskegee, Alabama for training. According to Christine Biggers, the recruits who came from other parts of the country often experienced a cultural shock when they crossed the Mason-Dixon Line.“One of the things they could not do, even if they went into a store in Montgomery, they couldn’t try on clothes,” explains Biggers. “They would have to buy it first and whether it fit or not, it was theirs. It was a very different environment for many of them.”The Tuskegee recruits not only faced hostility from the white residents in the surrounding community, they also faced discrimination within the military itself. There were many members of the military who hoped the program would fail, and the recruits were often under extreme scrutiny.“Every Tuskegee Airmen knew they had to excel and do their job better in order to pave the way for others,” states James Haley.After completing the rigorous training, George Haley earned his wings and became a fighter pilot in the 302nd Fighter Squadron, part of the 332nd Fighter Group. Haley also designed the squadron’s distinctive patch that was worn by all the members of the group.In February 1944, Haley and the rest of the 302nd shipped out in segregated troop transports and arrived in Italy where they would get their first taste of areal combat.


Once overseas and in combat, the Tuskegee Airmen earned the nickname “The Red Trails” because of the distinctive red paint scheme on their planes. Lt. Col. Haley flew over 90 combat missions during the war and was given the call sign “The Cool Fool” by squadron mates after they observed his fearless flying.“On one mission a cannon shell hit his oil cooler and oil covered the cockpit, fuselage and wings,” explains James Haley. “His wingman begged my father to bailout but he knew how badly an officer of color would be treated if taken prisoner by Germans, so he refused and flew his fighter back to its base.”Haley and the rest of the Red Tails were primarily tasked with escorting allied bombers on long-range missions over Nazi occupied Europe. The bombers had been suffering horrendous casualties and the Army needed escort pilots who would defend the bombers at all costs.“Initially, some of the commanders of the white bomber units did not want to be escorted by black pilots,” explains Biggers.Through their actions in the air, the Tuskegee Airmen disproved many of their critics. By the end of the war the unit had one of the lowest loss records of any escort group, and bomber squadrons were constantly requesting the Red Tails for missions.“Once they began to perform it was no longer, ‘Well we don’t want the Red Tails,’” states Biggers. “It was, ‘Can we get the Red-Tails?’”“Over the years many former bomber pilots have contacted me trying to thank my father for saving their lives,” states James Haley. “The last bomber pilot who called told me my father left his squadron and single handedly escorted his crippled bomber back to base.”The bomber pilot had been trying to track Lt. Col. Haley down since the end of the war. However, the records of the Tuskegee Program were considered classified after the war and many remained sealed until after the passage of the Freedom of Information Act.“Unfortunately, [my father] passed away before the calls started coming,” explains James Haley.


After World War II, Haley returned to Moton Field and briefly served as a training pilot in the Tuskegee Program. He then resumed his studies at Syracuse University where he graduated with a degree in Art in 1950.“As much as he

wanted to pursue a professional career as an artist, the Korean War erupted and he was re-activated to serve once again,” states James Haley.Haley remained in the military after Korea and was an intelligence officer during the Vietnam War.Lt. Col. Haley finished his military career with the USAF Tactical Air Command at McChord Air Force Base in Washington State. He retired in 1975 as a Lieutenant Colonel and then devoted his energy to community service. Lt. Col. Haley died in 1996, and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery. In 1997, a street on Bolling Air Force Base in Maryland was named in his honor.“Even though he spent his professional career in the military, he continued to create art,” explains James Haley.Lt. Col. Haley’s passion for art influenced and inspired his son, James, to pursue a life as an artist.“My father’s vision as an artist encouraged me to develop my abilities and it’s often said that I was drawing before I could walk,” states James Haley. “I was encouraged to nurture my creativity.”James Haley earned a B.A. at Reed College and a M.F.A. in videography at the Portland Museum Art School, and has taught video production at various universities and prep schools. While teaching broadcast video production at DCTV, Washington D.C.'s Public Access Television Facility, James Haley created a 24-hour interactive television channel. Today, he manages a studio in the D.C. area and has been featured in all seven publications of the Washington Project For The Art’s, Artist’s Directories. Inspired by his father’s distinguished military career, aviation art remains James Haley’s primary specialty.“All of this would not have been possible without my father’s encouragement,” states James Haley.James Haley believes that the role his father and the rest of the Tuskegee Airmen played in Civil Rights history cannot be understated.“I believe the lessons they taught the Army Air Force during World War II and later led to the formal desegregation of the military,” explains James Haley. “And eventually led to the civilian desegregation movement during the 1960s.”In 2007, the Tuskegee Airmen were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, the nation’s highest civilian honor, in recognition of their service to the country.Photographs courtesy of the Steuben County Historical Society.Corrections: An earlier version of this story stated that Lt. Col. Haley flew combat missions during Vietnam and helped design the 302nd patch, the story has been updated to reflect that he was actually an intelligence officer during Vietnam and was the sole creator of the patch. References to Lt. Col. Haley’s rank have been clarified using the AP Stylebook and Lt. Col. Haley’s call sign has been corrected to “The Cool Fool” rather than “Cool Fool.” James Haley’s information has been updated to reflect that he taught videography rather than art.


Learn more about the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site here.See the artwork of James Haley by visting his website here.


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