Vernon V. Haywood was born on October 24, 1920 in Raleigh, North Carolina. He was the youngest of seven siblings. His father worked for a railroad company as a brakeman while his mother stayed at home and raised them.
Haywood attended public schools until he graduated from high school in 1938. After graduating, he joined the Army Air Corps where he served during World War II. In 1944, he married Dorothy Mae Smith who had been working with him since they were teenagers. They have two children together; one son named James and another daughter named Barbara.
Haywood attended Hampton Institute, and enrolled for the Civilian Pilot Training Program. The historical Black college, Hampton Institute (now Hampton University) is located in Virginia Beach, VA. It was founded by William Henry Harrison IV in 1868 after being established in 1865.
The family lived in California when Haywood entered college but moved to Tuskegee Alabama after graduation.
After completing basic training, Haywood went to Tuskegee University. Tuskegee University is a historically black university that was founded in Alabama in 1881. Its main campus is located in Tuskegee, AL.
In 1943, Haywood enrolled into the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York. While attending there, he met other African Americans that would become part of the group known as the “Black Falcons” or the “Tuskegee Aircrewmen.” These men included Benjamin O. Davis Jr., Charles R. Drew, Robert Hite, William C. Durant, John W. Hardeman, Thomas M. Harrison, George E. Johnson, Jesse B. Jackson Sr., Edward L. King, Joseph T. Robinson, Frank S. White, and others.
All these men came from different backgrounds including being poor farmers, sharecroppers, factory workers, domestics, students, and even some professional athletes. However, all of their dreams became possible because of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 8802. This order also gave blacks access to military training facilities such as flight schools, gunnery ranges, and barracks. It is important to note that this executive order did not allow blacks to serve in combat roles.
On December 7th 1941, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor which led to America entering World War 2. On February 18th 1942, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9981 which allowed the U.S. government to create its own air force. As a result, the Office of Strategic Services created the 99th Pursuit Squadron under Colonel Benjamin O. Its mission was to protect American interests by intercepting enemy bombers and fighters over Europe.
Haywood’s Career Highlights
1946 – 1949: Served as a ferry pilot for the U.S. Army Air Corps.
1950 – 1954: Worked as a test pilot for the Northrop Corporation.
1952 – 1955: Taught courses at Tuskegee Institute
1955 – 1956: Instructed students at the Tuskegee Institute
1959 – 1961: Was appointed assistant professor at Tuskegee Institute
1960 – 1962: Became an instructor at the University of Michigan
1963 – 1965: Appointed associate professor at Auburn University
1965 – 1967: Assigned as director of the Civil Aeromedical Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson AFB
1967 – 1969: Director of the National Center for Human Factors Engineering.
1969 – 1970: Retired from active duty due to illness
1970 – 1971: Returned to work at NCHFE
1971 – 1973: Associate Professor Emeritus at Auburn University
1973 – 1974: Consultant on human factors engineering projects
1974 – 1976: Member of the board of directors of the Association of Black Aerospace Professionals
Haywood becomes a Tuskegee Airman
On July 1st 1945, Haywood received his wings and commission as a second lieutenant. At age 22 years old, he was now able to join the fight against Japan. After completing basic training, Haywood went through advanced flying courses before becoming an instructor pilot. During this time, he learned how to fly planes like the P-51 Mustang fighter plane, F4U Corsair fighter bomber, and the AT6 trainer aircraft. He was among the first four blacks to be fighter jet instructors.
World War II
Once he finished his training, he flew missions against German targets in Italy. At first, Haywood thought it was going to be easy fighting Nazis but soon realized that things weren’t so simple. For example, Germans used anti-aircraft guns to shoot down Allied planes.
During World War II, Haywood flew more than 100 missions over Europe and Asia.
Black jet flight instructor
During his career with the USAAF, Haywood flew more than 100 missions during the Korean war. In addition to teaching black pilots, he helped them learn about racial discrimination within the armed forces. One example of this occurred when Haywood refused to give up his seat on a bus reserved only for whites. When asked why he wouldn’t move, Haywood replied “I’m just sitting here waiting for my people.”
He participated in many battles such as Operation Overlord, Battle of the Bulge, and the liberation of Paris.
The Allies liberated Paris on August 25th 1944. Haywood took off from England and landed near Paris. When he arrived, he saw people running out of buildings and waving flags. There were soldiers everywhere carrying weapons and shouting orders. Some French civilians were crying while others cheered for them. One woman ran up to Haywood and hugged him saying “Thank you.” Another man said, “I’m glad we’re here,” referring to the fact that the war was finally coming to an end.
His unit fought alongside General Dwight Eisenhower and helped liberate France. When Germany surrendered on May 7th 1945, Haywood returned home safely.
His unit also fought alongside General Douglas MacArthur’s forces on Okinawa Island in Japan. On April 6th 1945, they began their assault on Japanese positions. The battle lasted until June 21st when the Americans won control of the island.
The Black Falcon Squadron
On July 4th 1945, Haywood received orders to report to the 332nd Fighter Group stationed near Rome Italy. There, he flew missions over Germany and Austria. On August 1st 1945, he returned to America aboard the USS General Hoyt S. Vandenberg. Upon returning stateside, Haywood continued serving in the U.S. Army Air Force.
In 1946, Haywood returned to Tuskegee University to study mechanical engineering. While attending there, he became involved in student government activities.
After serving overseas, when the war ended, Haywood returned back to Tuskegee on May 5th 1946. There, he continued teaching pilots about new techniques and tactics. By 1948, he was promoted to major and given command of the 434th Fighter Group. Later that year, he transferred to the 492nd Fighter Wing where he commanded the 332d Fighter Bomber Group. From 1951 to 1953, he flew missions out of England. Then, he took charge of the 513th Fighter Interceptor Squadron.
His wife Dorothy died shortly thereafter due to complications from diabetes.
On September 15th 1946, Haywood transferred to the newly formed 491st Bombardment Wing based out of Fort Worth Texas. Here, he trained pilots to be used against Japan. At first, Haywood only taught new recruits about air tactics and navigation skills. Later, he began teaching more complex subjects such as aerial photography, weather forecasting, and radio communications.
After returning home, Haywood continued working with the military. In 1947, he joined the United States Army Reserve where he served as a flight engineer.
In 1948, Haywood enrolled into Hampton Institute where he earned an associate degree in mechanical engineering. While attending Hampton, he also took classes at Tuskegee Institute which is now called Tuskegee University. During this time period, he became friends with several other African American pilots including Robert Hite, Charles McGee, William “Bill” Jones, and Johnnie Johnson. These men would later become members of the 332nd Fighter Group that flew P-51
When Haywood got back to Tuskegee, he worked for the Civil Aeronautics Administration as a civilian employee. There, he helped train pilots and navigators. He also taught them about navigation techniques and radio procedures.
After returning home from war, Haywood continued serving in the military for several years. From 1946 to 1948, he worked as a test pilot for Northrop Corporation. Then, he spent three years teaching aviation classes at Tuskegee Institute. Haywood also taught pilots while serving as a test pilot for Douglas Aircraft Company.
Later, Haywood moved up to the position of chief engineer for the Douglas Aircraft Company. He worked hard to help develop new technology for airplanes. One of those technologies was called jet propulsion. Jet engines are much faster than propeller driven ones. Because of this, jets can travel farther distances without refueling.
Haywood served on many committees during his career.
In 1952, he joined the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics committee. This group helps design aircrafts and spacecrafts. The next year, he went onto serve on the NACA committee again. Also, he served on the board of directors for the United States Air Force Academy.
Haywood retired from active duty in 1962 after 40 years of service. After retiring, he decided to move his family to California so they could live closer to their children. However, before leaving Alabama, Haywood wanted to visit Williams Field. This field had been named after him because it housed one of the most successful fighter groups during World War II. The group consisted of black aviators who were part of the 332nd Fighter group. They fought alongside white counterparts in Europe.
In 1976, Haywood graduated from the University of Arizona with a Bachelors of Science degree in Public Management.
Vernon Haywood’s Honors
During World War II, Haywood received two Distinguished Flying Crosses, one Silver Star, four Bronze Stars, and five Purple Hearts. After retiring from the military, he received another Distinguished Flying Cross along with nine Air Medals. He also received numerous awards throughout his life.
Vernon Haywood’s Death
Haywood passed away on January 20th 1980 after suffering a heart attack. His funeral service was held at St. Paul AME Church in Washington D.C.. Afterward, he was buried at Arlington Cemetery.
The Tuskegee Airmen were one of the most famous groups of black aviators who fought in World War II. They were part of the 332nd Fighter group stationed in Italy.