Many people may not know that “Red Tails,” the movie released Jan. 20 about the Tuskegee Airmen of WWII, has a link with the College, but Elwood “Woody” Thomas Driver ’42 became one of the famed African-American pilots after graduating from what was then New Jersey State Teachers College at Trenton.
Driver’s years at the College were tumultuous ones for the world. Tensions were already high in Europe by the time Driver enrolled, and war erupted at the start of his sophomore year. Meanwhile, Driver learned to fly at the nearby Mercer County Airport (now Trenton-Mercer airport). He was the first black man to do so, Driver’s sister Barbara O’Neal said during a Feb. 9 visit to Rider University. In December of Driver’s senior year, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, igniting the U.S. involvement. Driver studied general secondary education, according to the 1941 Seal (the College’s yearbook) but like so many of his fellow students, the war meant a change of plans.
Driver faced, nevertheless, limitations — even with his degree and flying abilities. The College was not then and had never been segregated (although yearbook photos show Driver was still just one of a handful of black students) but the military sure was. After being turned away from the Naval Academy despite having the top entrance score, Driver joined the Army Air Corps in 1942 and was sent to Tuskegee Army Air Field. He graduated the same year as an officer.
Better known as the Tuskegee Airmen, the men that trained out of Tuskegee were the first African-American military airmen, ground crews and mechanics. Overall they took down over 100 enemy aircraft between 1943 and 1945. According to the book “Black Knights: the story of the Tuskegee Airmen,” Driver himself destroyed shot down German aircraft on Feb. 5, 1944 over Italy.
Despite their wartime contributions, the Tuskegee Airmen received little national recognition until the 1990s, when books were published, a play called “Black Eagles” debuted and a TV documentary and feature film were projected. Even so, certain problems got in the way. George Lucas had bought the rights to “Red Tails” in 1988 with the intention of releasing the film in 1992, but as he told Jon Stewart in a recent interview, the production studios snubbed it because “its an all-black movie.” Nevertheless, surviving Airmen in the early ’90s expressed fears that Hollywood would just sensationalize their story. This was emphasized when, in 1991, Driver told Washington D.C.’s Daily Gazette that “Black Eagles” was “not the real story … There was too much romance and singing and dancing.”
Driver himself was retired by that point — after a long career in both the military and civilian sects. He retired from the military on Oct. 31, 1962 as a major, but in 1978 was appointed by President Jimmy Carter as the new vice chairman and board member of the National Transportation Safety Board. According to a Jet article from 1979, Driver directed the investigation of the deadly American Airlines crash in Chicago that killed 273 people. Later, in 1986 Driver was appointed director of aircraft management for NASA.
Driver died on March 26, 1992 from liver cancer. Obituaries from the Washington Post and New York Times he was laid to rest with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetary.
“(Driver) is a hero. He is a legend whose bravery and contributions to his country and his race should never be forgotten,” O’Neal said.