Lt. Col. James Harvey and his team of Tuskegee Airmen came to Las Vegas in 1949 and won the first 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.
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 Thunderbolt. 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 too 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.
“This is my thinking, not the Air Forces,” 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 strafing.
“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 332nd Fighter Group’s victory at that first Top Gun.
“We’re finally being recognized for something we accomplished 73 years ago,” said Harvey.
On Jan. 11, 2022, Gen. Mark Kelly, Air Combat Command commander, presided over the unveiling of the 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 be 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.’”