TYLER, TX (KLTV) - Prior to the Tuskegee Airmen in World War II, no U.S. Military pilots had been African American. Sam Garrison was not only one of the original Tuskegee Airmen to distinguish himself in war, he was the youngest.
"That Saturday night [the] paper boy [was] running up and down the streets, 'extra, read all about it, Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor,' so we stopped the paper boy and asked him where's Pearl Harbor," said Garrison.
He was an engineering student in Los Angeles December 7th, 1941, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.
"That was Sunday morning in Honolulu but Saturday night in Los Angeles..."
Garrison had been working at a variety of jobs to pay his college tuition, but his favorite was as a chain boy at Lockeed Aircraft, where he got to taxi the airplanes into place.
"I took it down the runway the first time," he said.
But it wasn't long before Garrison was taking the P-38 fighters into the air. So when he signed up for the Army Air Corps Tuskegee Airmen program, he was already ahead of the game.
"I made one of the highest scores," Garrison said.
Through a mix up, Garrison was at first assigned to a Native American group at Ft. McArthur, but finally arrived at Tuskegee. At the age of 18, he was the youngest of that original select group.
"It says here that you were the youngest airman and the most daring with a distinctive personality, so where you pretty much a daredevil in the air," I asked him.
"I was a dare devil," he replied with a smile.
Garrison was also the first to go to war in north Africa.
"I was the first to see action before they got there."
Flying P-47 and P-51 fighter planes as bomber escorts, Garrison often went out as many as five or six times a day. The Luftwafe nicknamed the Tuskegee Airmen the "black birdmen", and recognized them as skilled combatants.
"I shot down one and my buddy got knocked down. At that time there were three and the one that knocked my buddy down. After he knocked him down, my buddy parachuted out and I got in behind this guy. I said I'm gong to stay with you if you go to Berlin but I got him before he got to Berlin, but I was still in enemy territory."
Enemy territory or not, Garrison wasn't through destroying enemy planes.
"I had a field day at ground level. I shot up more airplanes on the ground. I stayed right at the ground. I shot down everything in my sight."
On that run Garrison put about ten planes out of commission.
"That ribbon you see at the bottom there that's where that is," he said pointing at his medals.
Garrison's bottom ribbon is for his part in the invasion of the Philippines, where he was sent after north Africa. The ribbon is one of many awards, including the Silver Star, Bronze Star, and air medals.
"Now, you were in dozens and dozens of dogfights in the air but you said the most scared you were was on the way home. What happened," I asked him.
"We ran into a typhoon at sea," he replied.
Not only did the typhoon have all the elements of "the perfect storm", a kitchen fire forced all the troops onto deck.
"While on deck you had to hold onto something because the typhoon and later on they gave orders to abandon ship and I said, 'Oh my God,' now that was frightening."
Although Garrison returned home safely, he tried to re-enlist in the Air Force during the Vietnam War. Turned down because of a broken leg in a ski accident, Garrison joined the Navy Corps of engineers and was in Vietnam during much of the fighting.
"I get a little emotional when I think about these things. I think about others who weren't as lucky as me."
"Did you lose lots of friends," I asked him.
"Lots of friends, lots of friends. Yep, lots of friends," he replied.
Sam Garrison is proud of his service to our country. He's also proud of his family's accomplishments. He says he, like his family, are all part of history.