Our Mother of Mercy altar server soared to great heights

By Jerry Circelli

Correspondent

North Texas Catholic

On his 90th birthday last year, Captain Platte received a Tuskegee Airman commemorative statue from members of the Claude R. Platte DFW Chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen, Inc.

On his 90th birthday last year, Captain Platte received a Tuskegee Airman commemorative statue from members of the Claude R. Platte DFW Chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen, Inc.

Claude Platte, one of the legendary Tuskegee Airmen who soared to great heights to break U.S. military color barriers, has always been one to quietly follow his convictions and push the envelope to reach his goals.

Long before he took wing with the military to serve our nation, Platte developed a curiosity, he said, “to see what was on the other side of the boundary, outside my area.”

Now age 91, Platte was just a boy in the 1920s, growing up in South Fort Worth, when he began to learn the difference between imposed restrictions and physical limitations. His first, self-taught lesson occurred in the city where he clearly recalled signs designating two separate water fountains for area residents. One was labeled “White” and the other “Colored.”

As he stood in line for a sip of water, Platte witnessed a light-skinned child skipping ahead of him and taking a drink out of the “Colored” fountain. The child’s mother scolded the youngster severely for doing so.

“I couldn’t understand why she would treat him that way,” Platte said. “I wondered, ‘What’s different about the water?’ So, I just had to see what the difference was.”

When the lines cleared and he was sure no one was looking, Platte approached the “White” fountain, put his mouth to it, and drank.

“And my biggest surprise, my biggest lesson,” said Platte, “was that the water was really the same. I didn’t know why I had always thought they were different. I began to really see what they meant by ‘segregation.’ … I thought about that for a long time. It changed my life.”

The experience would teach Platte to keep his head up. Once he did, it was as if God had sent an angel from above to set dreams and ambitions soaring for this faithful altar boy at Our Mother of Mercy Church in Fort Worth, the diocese’s oldest traditionally African-American parish.

A short time after the water fountain experience whetted his appetite to explore the world around him, a second incident occurred that would shape his life. While playing outside his boyhood home, the loud roar of an engine from above drew his gaze skyward.

“It was an airplane and it was flying really low,” Platte recalled. “I could see the pilot clearly. He was looking all over. It just struck me. I wanted to fly an airplane, too, so I could see how people lived outside of a segregated area.”

The youngster’s early passion for airplanes would get him in trouble with his parents when he was missing for most of a day. The fact was, Platte had been following his dreams. He walked more than eight miles, one way, from his South Fort Worth home all the way to Meacham Field on the far North Side of Fort Worth to watch airplanes take off and land. Though he said he faced “the worst whipping of my life,” on his return, Platte came away with a determination to one day pilot an airplane. “Those days really set the tone for my life,” he said.

Platte’s desire to learn more about flying machines and to actually take flight would eventually lead him from Fort Worth to Tuskegee, Alabama, to study engineering at Tuskegee Institute. Platte also entered the school’s newly formed Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP). Sponsored by the U.S. government, the program was developed to increase the number of civilian pilots as part of the nation’s military preparedness before World War II.

At Tuskegee, Platte would earn licenses to become a certified private pilot, commercial pilot, and flight instructor. He would also become a part of history as one of the early members of the Tuskegee Airmen — an elite group of black pilots serving the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II.

Platte would play a key role in the success of the new program as a flight instructor. During the war years, 1941 to 1945, he trained more than 400 pilots.

Through skill and determination, the black aviators disproved, beyond a doubt, a myth promulgated by a 1925 U.S. Army War College Study that blacks lacked the intelligence, ambition, and courage to serve in combat. And they would shoot down the notion that blacks were not capable of flying complicated military aircraft.

According to the National World War II Museum, the Tuskegee Airmen flew more than 15,000 sorties. They flew patrol and attack missions for the 12th Air Force before being reassigned to the 15th Air Force to escort B-17 and B-24 heavy bombers, according to a museum summary of the airmen’s activities. Bomber crews frequently requested to be escorted by the “Red Tails,” a nickname given to the Tuskegee Airmen for the distinctive red marking on the tails of their fighter planes.

And the request for those aviators was for good reason. According to the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, the Tuskegee Airmen of the 332nd Fighter Group shot down 112 enemy aircraft, destroyed another 150 on the ground, and knocked out 600 enemy railroad cars. Over the sea, they sank a destroyer, and 40 boats and barges.

The aviation skill the airmen possessed was further evidenced when the Tuskegee Airmen met up with the best fighting forces of the formidable German Luftwaffe near the end of WWII. According to the Air Force Museum, the airmen, flying in propeller-driven P-51 Mustangs, were escorting bombers on a 1,600-mile round-trip mission from their base in Italy to Berlin, Germany, when they encountered 25 German Messerschmitt Me262’s — the first operational jet fighters in the world. The Red Tails lost only one plane in the skirmish, but shot down three enemy jets and damaged five others, according to historical accounts.

While Platte is proud of the accomplishments of the Tuskegee Airmen and his role in training pilots, it was his passion for flying and teaching others that motivated him. It was that same passion that made him seemingly immune from racial slurs and inequalities faced by blacks in the segregated military. Platte always kept a higher power and loftier goals in mind. He remained confident in his faith and God-given abilities in the face of adversity.

“Actually I never did think about it too much. The only thing I was concerned about was the opportunity to fly. I was more wrapped up in the opportunity I had been given, than everything we had to go through.”

After the war, Platte volunteered to serve his country once again. He became the first black officer to be trained and commissioned in the newly reopened U.S. Air Force Pilot Training Program at Randolph Air Force Base, near San Antonio. He was promoted to the rank of captain, serving his country as an Air Force pilot for the next 18 years.

Retired from Bell Helicopter, Platte stays active at Our Mother of Mercy Church and with Tuskegee Airman International (TAI). In his honor, TAI established the Claude R. Platte DFW Chapter to perpetuate the legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen and to help minority youth pursue post-secondary education and careers in the aerospace industry. Platte has remained active talking at schools and at special events to encourage youth to stay healthy, get a good education, and follow their dreams, so they will be ready when their “Tuskegee” opportunity arrives.

Platte has received numerous medals for his service, but one of the nation’s greatest honors came in 2007, when he and other Tuskegee Airmen were recognized with the Congressional Medal of Honor. It is the highest civilian award presented by the U.S. Congress, which recognized the airmen collectively for their “unique military record, which inspired revolutionary reform in the Armed Forces.”

Although Platte could not attend ceremonies in Washington, D.C., because of an illness at the time, he cherishes the honor. He and other Tuskegee Airmen received bronze replica medals, with the original gold medal placed at the Smithsonian Institution.

Platte also received an honorary Doctor of Public Service from his alma mater, Tuskegee University.

One of the most recent awards came from Our Mother of Mercy, where the captain and his wife, Erma, were recognized for top honors in 2012. Claude was named Genesis Man of the Year, and Erma was declared Genesis Woman of the Year. The award honored the couple for their outstanding service to Our Mother of Mercy and the church community.

Our Mother of Mercy’s pastor, Father Jerome Ledoux, SVD, said the recognition was well deserved. The Plattes, he said, have remained dedicated to the Catholic Church and have been an inspiration to parishioners, not only in their their dedication to God, but in constantly helping and encouraging others. “They are looked up to as beacons — beacons of living history, beacons of faith, trust, hope, and love in a world where there is not enough of those qualities.”

For more information on the Tuskegee Airmen visit www.tuskegeeairmen.org.

Claude Platte, one of the legendary Tuskegee Airmen who soared to great heights to break U.S. military color barriers, has always been one to quietly follow his convictions and push the envelope to reach his goals.

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