John Lyman Whitehead Jr. was born in Lawrenceville, Virginia, on 14 May 1924. He joined the Reserve Corps in 1942, and enlisted in the United States Army Air Corps in 1943 when he attained 19 years, the minimum age required. This was during World War II.
He got selected as a pilot trainee and was sent to Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama. He became one of the Tuskegee Airmen, part of the Tuskegee Experiment. African Americans prior to 1940 had been denied the opportunity to join the army or be trained for combat in the military because many believed that they were not capable of any combat role. They also were not allowed to become pilots. He graduated as a pilot on 8 September 1944, and was commissioned as a second lieutenant – a junior commissioned officer military rank.
Whitehead was assigned to the 301st Fighter Squadron in Italy in March 1945. The 301st Fighter Squadron was one of four African American fighter squadrons in the 332nd Fighter Group flying the North American P-51 Mustang.
He flew 19 combat missions before the war in Europe ended on 8 May 1945. On one mission, the 301st Fighter Squadron was attacked by 33 German fighters, losing two Mustangs. Whitehead narrowly avoided being shot down during the attack. He survived another attack on a mission where German anti-aircraft guns holed his wings and a piece of shrapnel went through his parachute, just inches from his body.
‘Mr. Death’ was his nickname, owing to his scrawny frame – 55 kg (121 pounds). He liked the name, and even had it painted on his aircraft.
In January 1947, Whitehead briefly left the Air Force to enter West Virginia State College, where he earned a Bachelor of Science degree in 1948. He returned to duty to the 332nd Fighter Group, after his graduation.
The 332nd Fighter Group was disbanded on 1st July, 1949 after President Harry S. Truman‘s Executive Order 9981 integrating the armed forces. This executive order abolished discrimination “on the basis of race, color, religion or national origin” in the United States Armed Forces, and led to the re-integration of the services during the Korean War (1950–1953).
Whitehead was posted to Williams Air Force Base in Arizona in June 1949, where he became the first African American jet pilot instructor. Some sources say that there were other African American pilot trainers. In 1950, he became the Air Training Command liaison at Boeing for the Boeing B-47 Stratojet, becoming the first African American pilot to fly that bomber.
He flew another 104 missions in the Korean War. Whitehead was then assigned to Northrop Corporation at Hill Air Force Base in Utah as a test pilot. As part of class 57C in the U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School, Whitehead became the first African American to graduate from there on 3 January 1958. In the 1960s, he flew combat missions in the Vietnam War, and served as a squadron and deputy group commander at Edwards Air Force Base in California. He never had an accident throughout his military career.
Whitehead retired from the Air Force in 1974, having flown over 9,500 hours, of which 5,000 were in jets.
A camping ground at Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park was named in his honor. He was also awarded four Distinguished Flying Crosses- for “Heroism or extraordinary achievement while participating in an aerial flight”, eight Air Medals, an Army Commendation Medal and an Air Force commendation Medal.