Since its inception a few years ago, Villages Honor Flight has celebrated many American heroes, transporting them to visit military memorials in our nation’s capital. Saturday morning was extra special, because one of the few remaining Tuskegee Airmen, 92-year-old Dan Keel of Clermont, and his wife Barbara, met for breakfast at Perkin’s in The Villages with other members of the Purple Squad. The group will fly to Washington D.C. on May 27.
Keel served in the U.S. Army Air Corps. during World War II as a Billy Mitchell B-25 pilot.
“I am proud to have been able to serve my country in this way,” Keel said. “I think we showed the world that when Negroes had access to a good education, worked hard and somehow overcame the many obstacles that were placed in our path, we were able to overcome negative myths and succeed.”
Because of Keel’s popularity, his Honor Flight guardian, Rob Hempel, and fellow veterans on his upcoming May 27 Honor Flight, refer to him as their “rock star.”
“I believe the Tuskegee Airmen’s performance during World War II was a major influence on President Truman’s decision to desegregate the Army in 1948, far before national desegregation was declared in 1965 ,” Keel revealed. “That caused riots at Travis Air Force Base — but I believe we Negroes proved we were up to most any task a white pilot could do — despite the myth at the time that our brains were 25 percent smaller than white brains. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt believed in us.”
Mrs. Roosevelt attracted major publicity to the heroic group when she flew with the Tuskegee Airmen’s chief flight instructor — an action that was highly criticized at the time.
In order to become a fighter or bomber pilot, candidates had to take an arduous written exam, followed by two long psychological evaluations. Eighty percent of the Tuskegee candidates passed all three exams. The African-American group met obstacles at every turn, however, from some racist commanding officers, who didn’t believe they had the mental capacity to fly missions — and didn’t think white crews would be willing to fly with African-American navigators.
“Every fighter pilot wanted to be an ace,” Keel continued, “which referred to those who had shot down five or more enemy planes. So in the air, even when the enemy planes were retreating, the fighter pilots, whose mission it was to protect the planes delivering the bombs, would instead go after the enemy planes instead , attempting to score more kills. This left American bombers vulnerable, and the enemy seized on the opportunity to attack some of our bombers.”
The Tuskegee Airmen were ordered to stay to protect the bombers and not to chase enemy planes.
“Of the 400 Negro pilots who flew these missions, 100 did not return home,” Keel said.
When he left the service, Keel wanted to be a commercial pilot, but that type of employment was not open to African-Americans — so he furthered his studies in aeronautical engineering and ran a successful electrical contracting business in Massachusetts until his retirement in 1998. Dan and Barbara Keel have been married 72 years and have eight children, five grandchildren, six great-grandchildren and two great-great-grandchildren.
The Tuskegee Airmen was the name of a group of African-American military fighter and bombardier pilots who fought in World War II. Formally, the y made up the 332nd fighter group and the 477th bombardier group of the U.S. Army Air Forces. The name also applies to the navigators, mechanics, instructors, crew chiefs, nurses, cooks and other support personnel associated with the pilots.
“Everyone in the Honor Flight organization feel fortunate to be able to honor Dan Keel and have him fly with us,” his guardian, Rob Hempel said.