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Black History Month | Tuskegee Airmen compete, win 1st ever weapons meet, receive recognition 46 years later

Lt. Col. James Harvey and his team of Tuskegee Airmen came to Las Vegas in 1949 and won the first ever Air Force Weapons’ Meet (Top Gun), but their victory was hidden for years and the trophy was nowhere to be found.

In May of 1949, the then Chief of Staff of the Air Force sent a directive to all the fighter groups in the United States, stating there would be a competition between the three highest scoring fighter groups. This was the first Top Gun Weapons Meet the Air Force ever held.

Retired Lt. Col. James Harvey, an original Tuskegee Airman, admires a mural at the U.S. Air Force Demonstration Squadron ‘Thunderbird’ Museum at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev. During his visit to Nellis, Harvey visited the Thunderbird museum and was briefed on its mission and history. (Air Force photograph by Airman 1st Class Zachary Rufus)

The 332nd Fighter Group, formed by Tuskegee Airmen, had impressive scores, and despite the racial tension at that time, was invited to the competition. The primary competitors were: Capt. Alva Temple, 301st Fighter Squadron; 1st Lt. Harry Stewart, 100th Fighter Squadron; and 1st Lt. James Harvey, 99th Fighter Squadron. The alternate was 1st Lt. Halbert Alexander also from the 99th FS.

There were only two trophies to be presented, one for best team and one for best individual, and Col. Benjamin Davis, 332nd Group commander, told his four pilots, “If you don’t win, don’t come back.”

The 332nd Group’s competitors were flying P-51 Mustangs and F-82 Twin Mustangs. The Tuskegee Airmen were flying obsolete P-47 Thunderbolts. The missions were aerial gunnery at 12,000 and 20,000 feet, dive bombing, skip bombing, rocket firing and panel strafing.

After both aerial gunnery events, the 332nd was leading, and Temple was the high scorer.

“The next day was dive bombing, we didn’t do to good that day; no one did,” said James Harvey. “We were still leading at the end of the day, and Capt. Temple was still the high individual.”

The team moved on and got the highest score in skip bombing. Skip bombing was performed by releasing a bomb so low to the ground that it didn’t have a chance to nose over. Instead, the bomb would land flat and skip on the ground until it hit a target. Each pilot got six bombs for skip bombing.

“Captain Temple scored six for six, Stewart scored six for six, and I scored six for six,” Harvey said. “The next day was rocket firing; Temple had six for six, Stewart had five for six, and I had five for six.”

The 332nd Fighter Group was winning the contest and had best individual score. With only one mission left, they were sure to win.

Col. Scott Mills, 57th Operations Group commander, talks to retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. James Harvey, an original Tuskegee Airman, about the new and advanced capabilities of the F-35 Lightning II at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, Jan. 10, 2022. During his visit to Nellis, Harvey stopped at Bolt Aircraft Maintenance Unit to learn more about the F-35 and met with a few of the Airmen that maintain them. (Air Force photograph by Airman 1st Class Zachary Rufus)

“This is my thinking, not the Air Force’s,” Harvey said. “We’ve got a lock on this weapons meet; we’ve won it. Captain Temple is winning it as high individual, and they couldn’t stand to see the 332nd win everything.”

During the panel strafing mission, one of their competitor pilots had to abort and restart the panel strafing portion of the mission and get a new plane. After getting a different airplane, that pilot scored the highest in panel staffing.

“He went up and clobbered the target, he had tons of bullets in that target,” Harvey said. “I’m thinking, not only did they give him another airplane, they gave him extra bullets.”

The 332nd won the weapons meet, but Temple was aced out of the best individual award after the panel strafing mission. However, in print, the 332nd was never recognized as the winner.

The Air Force Association puts out an almanac each year highlighting the winners of Air Force Weapons Meets, 1949 through present day. Each year the winners of the 1949 weapons meet were listed as “Unknown.” It wasn’t until 1993, when Col. Harry Stewart returned to Nellis AFB, found the information and presented it to the Air Force that a change was worked. As of April 1995, the almanac shows the 332nd Fighter Group as the winners of the 1949 weapons meet.

Harvey went on to be the first Black pilot to fly a fighter jet in Korean air space, received the Distinguished Flying Cross and retired in the grade of lieutenant colonel. Temple retired from the Air Force as a lieutenant colonel. Stewart retired from the Air Force Reserves as a lieutenant colonel. Alexander was killed in an F-86 aircraft accident over New England.

“Be the best you can be; don’t take anything less,” Harvey said. “When you strive to be the best, it will pay off.”

In January 2022 Harvey returned to Nellis for the unveiling of a plaque at the U.S. Air Force Weapons School marking the 322nd Fighter Group’s victory at that first Top Gun.

“We’re finally being recognized for something we accomplished 73 years ago,” said Harvey.

Gen. Mark Kelly, Air Combat Command commander, unveils the 332nd Fighter Group’s commissioned plaque to retired Lt. Col. James Harvey, an original Tuskegee Airman, and Jerry Burton, national president of the Tuskegee Airman Organization, during a ceremony at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., Jan. 11, 2022. In 1949, Harvey and the 332nd Fighter Group won the U.S. Air Force’s inaugural Fighter Gunnery Meet “Top Gun,” a worldwide gunnery competition where the best pilot teams in the U.S. Air Force came together to compete for the top spot. (Air Force photograph by Airman 1st Class Zachary Rufus)

On Jan. 11, 2022, Gen. Mark Kelly, Air Combat Command commander, presided over the unveiling of a plaque commissioned to reaffirm the accomplishments of the 332nd Fighter Group’s win.

“We stand on the shoulders of giants in this profession, and Lt. Col. Harvey is one of those giants,” said Kelly.

Although the plaque is 73 years late, it will displayed prominently at the U.S. Air Force Weapons School forever.

“At the Weapons School, our mission today is exactly what it was when Lt. Col. Harvey was here 73 years ago,” said Col. Daniel Lehoski, U.S. Air Force Weapons School commandant. “We take young officers and put them through the most rigorous training we can to make them ready for combat. We learned this from Lt. Col. Harvey and his generation, and I can’t thank him enough for the example he set for the Air Force and the Weapons School.”

The Tuskegee Airmen blazed a path of excellence for the Air Force through their piloting expertise, determination to denounce racist beliefs and resiliency to overcome significant obstacles, which still motivates and inspires the diverse population of Airmen serving in the U.S. Air Force today.

“Thank you, it’s been a long time coming, and it’s a step in the right direction,” said Harvey. “I can finally close the pages on this chapter and say, ‘mission accomplished.’”

Retired Lt. Col. James Harvey admires the 322nd Fighter Group’s plaque, commissioned for winning the U.S. Air Force’s inaugural 1949 Fighter Gunnery Meet “Top Gun,” at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., Jan. 10, 2022. While the plaque was commissioned 73 years after the 322nd FG won the Top Gun competition, it will be displayed at the U.S. Air Force Weapons School. (Air Force photograph by Airman 1st Class Zachary Rufus)
Halbert Alexander (Courtesy photograph)
Harry Stewart (Courtesy photograph)
Alva Temple (Courtesy photograph)
James Harvey (Courtesy photograph)
U.S. Air Force Capt. Alva Temple, 1st Lt. James Harvey, 1st Lt. Harry Stewart and 1st Lt. Halbert Alexander pose with their 1949 Weapons Meet trophy in May 1949 at the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas, Nev. The trophy went missing for 55 years, but is now displayed at the National Museum of the U.S.Air Force at Wright Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. (U.S. Air Force photo)

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