When Karen Chin was a child, her father used to take her and her siblings to airshows.
“He’d watch the planes, and he’d explain what was going on,” said Chin, a professor in the Department of Geological Sciences and curator of paleontology in the Museum of Natural History at CU Boulder. “He loved it.”
It wasn’t until Chin was older that she realized the full significance of her father’s passion for flying: Jack Chin, the son of a Chinese immigrant father and a mother with African American and white ancestry, served during World War II as a Tuskegee Airman—the name for members of a segregated unit in the U.S. Army Air Forces who became the first Black military pilots in the country’s history.
Chin enlisted at just 17 and graduated from the last class of Tuskegee Airmen in 1946.
“He looked so young in his Army uniform,” Karen Chin said.
While he never saw combat, her father learned to fly six different kinds of planes, from the North American B-25J Mitchell bomber to the Republic P-47N Thunderbolt fighter, probably his favorite. After the war, Chin earned his master’s degree and worked as a materials scientist.
To commemorate Black History Month, Karen Chin sat down with CU Boulder Today to share memories of her father, who died in 2000—and to reflect on what she hopes younger generations will take away from the legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen.
What do you know about your dad’s life before the war?
He was born in 1927 and grew up very poor in Chicago. His father, my grandfather, was from China and worked in or ran different Chinese restaurants. As I understand it, at one point when my father was young, they lived in the back part of a restaurant. People would come in the front door and order something, and my grandfather would have to send one of the kids running out the back to buy the food they needed to cook and serve.
What did he tell you about his time as a Tuskegee Airman?
He had such amazing stories of flying. Once, he was flying in formation with four other planes, and they went through what looked like a tunnel between two columns of towering cumulus. But it turned out, it wasn’t a tunnel at all but a ring of clouds, so they inadvertently flew in formation right into a towering cumulus cloud. The planes were about 10 feet apart, and they started getting these vertical updrafts bouncing them around, and the visibility fluctuated from 10 to 60 feet. My dad almost left the formation, but he continued to follow the flight leader, and when they broke out of the clouds, they were the only pilots who had remained in formation.
One pilot bailed out of his plane. He landed with a parachute and broke his leg. Another came out of the clouds upside down but was able to right himself after emerging.
Which shows that even training to be a pilot at that time was really dangerous.
He said that, on average, one person died every month, and this wasn’t even in the war.
Was your dad proud of his time as a Tuskegee Airman?
During the war, many people had particularly poor opinions about the abilities of African Americans and thought that they couldn’t perform up to the standards of white Americans. So a program like the Tuskegee Airmen in which men of color could demonstrate their ability to master very complex technological and physical accomplishments was really important.
People had eyes on the program, so they were probably more critical of Tuskegee Airmen than white airmen. I believe my dad was very proud of that legacy.
The life of Tuskegee Airmen wasn’t easy—there’s been a lot written about how much racism they faced. Did your dad talk about that part of his life?
He did not talk about it very much, but I now wonder how my dad felt going down to Tuskegee, Alabama, and experiencing the Jim Crow South. Around the airbase, there were communities that didn’t want anything to do with people of color.
And they also faced backlash within the military, right?
My dad told me that he sometimes had to ferry planes from one place to another. At one point, he was picking up a fighter plane in Florida. The white men on the base looked at Daddy and couldn’t believe that he was the pilot because he looked too young and too black, so they were hesitant to give him the plane. They watched carefully when he took off.
After the war, your dad was a scientist. Is he one of the reasons why you became a paleontologist?
My dad’s influence on me is certainly one of the major reasons I became a scientist. He was always very analytical and really encouraged my interest in science. He also fostered my interest in the natural world by teaching me how to garden and through our family trips to national parks.
I now realize that I have been using some of the same technologies he used. I am sad that I can’t tell him that I have learned to understand his scientific career a little more.
We’re losing these stories now that so many World War II veterans have died. How would you like your dad and other Tuskegee Airmen to be remembered by future generations?
People of color still deal with a lot of prejudice, unconscious bias and systemic racism. But it is particularly upsetting to read about the injustices of segregation and the poor treatment that the Tuskegee Airmen—including my dad—had to deal with. I am so appreciative of the work they did and the examples they set. They truly made pioneering strides that helped pave the way for subsequent generations, like mine, to be able to pursue opportunities that earlier people of color did not have.