spotlight on... - Charles P. Bailey Sr.
February 9, 2001|By Darryl E. Owens of The Sentinel Staff
At a time when Jim Crow grounded the dreams of black America, Lt. Charles P. Bailey soared through the skies. Flying during World War II with America's first corps of black fighter pilots, Bailey bombed foreign targets and blasted holes in domestic racism.
A member of the 99th Squadron -- the now celebrated Tuskegee Airmen -- Bailey was born in Punta Gorda in 1918, three years after the first true fighter aircraft buzzed Europe. Though he imagined becoming a pilot, in his youth the friendly skies were white-only.
World War II ushered in the segregated skies. Though both races died for the American way, black pilots were trained apart from white flyboys at a remote facility in Alabama near the Tuskegee Institute, founded in 1881 by Booker T. Washington to teach blacks trades. Tuskegee introduced aviation in 1939.
Bailey's dreams took flight when he met Mary McLeod Bethune, founder of Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach, where he attended on a football scholarship. Bethune had the ear of Eleanor Roosevelt and arranged his transfer to Tuskegee.
Eventually, he joined 450 Tuskegee aviators in dogfights over North Africa, Sicily and Europe. Flyingin a fighter named after his mother, Josephine, Bailey flew 133 combat missions. Once, while flying over the Mediterranean Sea, he was hit with shrapnel. The Bible he carried over his heart in his flightsuit pocket absorbed the blast.
Bailey earned an Air Medal with four oak-leaf clusters, awarded for valor in aerial combat. In May 1945, he added the Distinguished Flying Cross. In 15,553 sorties and 1,578 combat missions , the Tuskegee Airmen downed more than 1,000 enemy aircraft without losing a single fighter.
After the war, Bailey opened the Bailey Funeral Home in DeLand, married Bessie Fitch and raised two sons, Charlie Bailey Jr. and James Bailey. In 1995, Bailey was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. Five years later, the city of DeLand, where he still lives, honored him with a bronze plaque.