Heroes lift spirits with visit to Grady

In the early 1940s, shortly after U.S. entry into World War II, Irma “Pete’’ Dryden of New York City was inspired when she heard of the young black men training as military pilots.

Dryden became a nurse for that unit in Alabama, which became known as the Tuskegee Airmen.

“We would see to it that they got the best possible care,’’ Dryden, 92, said Thursday at Grady Memorial Hospital.

Dryden was among the honorees at a Tuskegee Airmen event hosted by the Morehouse School of Medicine and Grady staff.

They heard a lecture about the prevalence of Vitamin D deficiency from Dr. L. Ray Matthews, a Morehouse and Grady physician, who has been researching that deficiency and its association with chronic medical conditions.

Dr. Kenneth Wilson, assistant professor of clinical surgery and the director of trauma at Morehouse School of Medicine, talked of the history of the Tuskegee Airmen and the racism they endured.

Wilson cited studies at the time that asserted blacks possessed brains significantly smaller than those or whites and that blacks were naturally lacking in courage.

The Tuskegee Airmen’s experience helped refute those myths. The all-black 99th Pursuit Squadron of the U.S. Army Air Corps trained at a segregated Tuskegee airfield, and the airmen eventually flew more than 1,500 combat missions. The squadron saw action in North Africa, Sicily and the mainland of Italy.

Heros Visit Grady
(From left): Hillard Pouncy, Bernice Berthoud, Irma Dryden, John Haupert and Edgar Lewis.

Sixty-six of the airmen died in the war. The men won numerous military awards. And they eventually helped break the segregation barrier in the military, said Wilson, who served in the U.S. military in Iraq.

The Tuskegee service was recounted in the recent film “Red Tails,’’ which took its title from the red tailpieces of the P-51 Mustang aircraft.

Hillard Pouncy, 90, of Austell served as a bombardier on a B-25 during World War II.

“As a Tuskegee Airman, the training was very exacting,’’ he told the Grady audience. “I’m proud to have served.’’

Pouncy talked of the airmen’s contribution to desegregating America. “Think about it: The civil rights movement got started in the U.S. military, in the Air Corps.’’

Their service proved that ‘‘people of color could do a lot of things,’’ said Pouncy, who later worked for Union Carbide as a chemist.

Retired Air Force Lt. Col. Edgar Lewis of Atlanta, who flew 200 missions in the Vietnam War, told the Grady gathering that he and other pilots disproved the prevailing opinion of an earlier era that African-Americans could not fly.

Zellie Rainey Orr, who wrote a book about the airmen, attended the Grady event, as did Bernice Berthoud, wife of Rudolph Berthoud, one of the surviving Tuskegee Airmen.

The Tuskegee Army Nurses such as Dryden broke down barriers of their own. The segregated Army had limited black nurses to about 500 out of 50,000 Army Nurse Corps nurses who served during the war, according to Pia Winters Jordan on the website www.TuskegeeArmyNurses.info

“There were so few doctors,’’ Dryden said of her Tuskegee experience. “Nurses had to do a lot’’ to help the pilots with mental health issues. “We were psychiatrists, mothers, sisters.’’

Nurses and other health staff back then did not have a much medical equipment to rely on as they do today, she told GHN. “You had to do a lot more nursing — it was hands-on,’’ Dryden said. “We had equipment, but nothing compared to what we have today.’’

By working extensively in wound and trauma care, Dryden said, the nurses became more like the nurse practitioners of today.

She married one of the airmen, Charles Dryden, who later wrote a book about the experience. The couple had three children before later divorcing.

Dryden showed a photo of herself as a young Tuskegee Army Nurse, fresh from New York. She’s now a Georgian, living in Canton.

“I sometimes get pretty emotional about the young men who were lost,’’ she said. “I get emotional about it because of what they had to endure.’’

Among Grady officials saluting the guests’ contributions were John Haupert, Grady’s CEO, and Dr. Curtis Lewis, Grady’s chief of staff.

Lisa Borders, president of the Grady Health Foundation, noted the racial barriers the Tuskegee Airmen  helped break down. “We stand in awe of our physicians here at Grady,’’ she said. “We stand in reverence of the Tuskegee Airmen.’’

Here’s a wsbtv.com story about another Tuskegee Airman living in Georgia.