Women of Tuskegee supported famed black pilots
Irma "Pete" Dryden served as a nurse for the Tuskegee Airmen, and later married one: Charles "A-Train" Dryden.
February 2nd, 2012
06:00 AM ET

Women of Tuskegee supported famed black pilots

By Stephanie Siek, CNN

(CNN) - As the Tuskegee Airmen fought for their place in the skies during World War II, they were supported by a dedicated and often forgotten cadre of women.

They were nurses, mechanics, supply pilots and secretaries. They nursed injured bodies and souls, packaged and repackaged parachutes, cleared land for runways and base buildings, delivered supplies and did the other work that helped keep the base running.

The Tuskegee Airmen, whose combat service is depicted in the recently released film "Red Tails," earned their place in history by being the first African-American pursuit squadron. They were charged with protecting bombers from enemy fire while flying missions over parts of Europe and North Africa. Their training program, first based at the historically black Tuskegee Institute in 1941, eventually grew to include nearly 1,000 pilots and several air bases.

It isn’t clear exactly how many women were included among the estimated 15,000 people that worked as part of the program. But Ruth Jackson, a research librarian at the Universityof California–Riverside, said her research confirms at least 41 women were nurses. The university houses a large archive of material related to the Tuskegee Airmen, and Jackson has been collecting oral histories from many of the female personnel.

"They believed very strongly, just the way the men did, that it was ridiculous for the barriers to exist, and for the military to have believed that African-Americans were not intelligent enough or brave enough to fly," Jackson said. "They were very much devoted to the cause and the success of the experience. They felt very special to be a part of it, as a matter of fact."

Some of the women working with the program married the airmen, and continued their supportive role as wives. Irma "Pete" Dryden served in such a dual role – first working as a nurse at the Tuskegee air base’s hospital.  Dryden, whose nickname is derived from her childhood habit of wiggling her nose like Peter Rabbit, eventually married an airman she met her first day on base. Charles "A-Train" Dryden was an instructor and pilot, commissioned as a second lieutenant in 1942. At the time, he was part of the second-ever class of black pilots to complete the U.S. Army Air Corps training program. They were married 32 years, then divorced. Charles Dryden remarried and passed away in 2008.

"Pete" considers her service as a Documented Original Tuskegee Airman among her proudest accomplishments. She’s remained an active member of Tuskegee Airmen Inc., the nonprofit organization that preserves and teaches about the group’s legacy.

She volunteered to serve as a nurse on base just after finishing her training at Harlem Hospital. She was 23 when she boarded a train in April 1943 to travel to the air base being built outside Tuskegee, Alabama.  A New York City native, she had never experienced the Jim Crow racism of the south, but she and two fellow black nurses got their introduction after having to change to a segregated train in Washington, D.C.

The train didn't have a separate dining car for African-Americans, so Dryden and two fellow nurses were given strict rules about when and where they could eat their meals. They were to be only at certain times, and as they ate, a curtain was pulled around them so that the white passengers wouldn't have to acknowledge the "coloreds" in their midst.

"I had never been exposed to anything so humiliating," Dryden said.  "But something came out of this humiliation – I knew I can overcome anything and I can help whoever I'm with. Like these young men, I knew I could give them strength, and I did."

To Dryden, that meant lending a sympathetic ear as well as bandaging a wound.

"We were to run the hospital and be there for these young men," said Dryden, now 92. "They were all young and they needed some counseling – somebody to talk to – to help them get over the bad times when they had not done well in an examination or something, someone who was there for moral support. And it was the women who they returned to the most."

The airmen being trained as part of what was then called "the Tuskegee experiment" were under tremendous pressure. In addition to the stresses of military service during wartime, they worked knowing that their success or failure would be used as justification for or against African-Americans’ participation in the armed forces. Their training was grueling on base, and at least as trying was the racism and discrimination they faced in the communities surrounding some of the bases.

"We knew we had a purpose," Dryden said. "We had to make this thing work, with a passion that other units didn’t have to exhibit."

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Filed under: Black in America • Discrimination • Gender • History • Race • Who we are • Women
soundoff (31 Responses)
  1. sukiyaki

    This is "BlackHistory"month.a time to give honor, where honor is due.America was built on the backs of blacks.SLAVERY/we were there for every thing good,bad,&indifferent.we are morethan "the help".

    February 8, 2012 at 11:23 am | Report abuse |
  2. Chandra

    Wonderful story! Thanks to the Tuskegee Women and the very brave Airmen! God bless them all!

    February 5, 2012 at 4:24 pm | Report abuse |
  3. jim

    To put African American soldiers contribution to the war in perspective only 708 deaths of the 400000 US deaths in WW2, and only 16 women died in combat. Of the conservative number of 50 million total dead in WW2 that means US African American soldiers represented .00001416. Surely there are more important stories to tell.

    February 5, 2012 at 8:13 am | Report abuse |
    • lora

      As a african american woman, I am not even going to respond to that ridiculous statement of "there are more important stories to tell." What is important is that this a human interest story about a small group of people who were overlooked during those hard years. Great job ladies.

      February 5, 2012 at 9:18 am | Report abuse |
    • Bob

      That just means that African Americans didn't die as much

      February 5, 2012 at 4:38 pm | Report abuse |
    • anon


      February 6, 2012 at 12:24 am | Report abuse |
  4. Marlee

    Great article about great ladies! Thank you, thank you! Haven't seen the movie yet. The syphilis experiments and other human experimentation by the U.S. need exposure.

    February 5, 2012 at 7:42 am | Report abuse |
  5. p41

    Very interesting article. It's a darn shame that these historical accounts never get mentioned in American History classes. Yet, we hear about the jewish holocaust as American History (and it didn't even happen in America!). Jews have some nerve discriminating against their Black Knights and saviour's. Show some respect Jewish people.

    February 4, 2012 at 12:00 am | Report abuse |
    • jim

      They don't get mentioned because African Americans represent only .00177 of total casualties in the war, or about 708 total soldiers. 400000 total soldiers died. ISBN 0-7864-1204-6. pp. 584-585

      February 5, 2012 at 8:19 am | Report abuse |
      • precious74

        Seriously Jim? by this time, in this 21st century, if people like you are still talking like this, when are we going to get over this issue of racism in this country? Even if it was only one African-American live that was lost in WW2, that name deserved to be mention in American history classes. Those soldiers died defending the country that hate them so much (back then) but despite that, they wholeheartedly performed their duties.

        February 5, 2012 at 9:10 am | Report abuse |
  6. mrtechno

    Racism is alive and well. So why isn't CNN reporting on this one? Where is Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson?


    February 3, 2012 at 4:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • swodog

      Yeah, I live in Memphis. This guy is a racist and represents what's wrong with black America today.

      February 4, 2012 at 12:19 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Phil B.

    Well at least we know racism is still alive and well, huh Dave. Or is that a lie too?

    February 3, 2012 at 1:46 pm | Report abuse |
  8. DAve

    This whole thing is nonsense. So they were the best pilots and flew over Berlin fighting the Germans and while all the white pilots got shot down, they were the best and never did. Get real with all these lies. So they make this stuff up since all the real pilots are dead now from old age and this is all fiction. They never got shot down because they flew over Berlin, NY not Berlin, Germany. Propganda from the liberal media and Comrade Obama.

    February 3, 2012 at 1:03 pm | Report abuse |
    • Kriss greenn

      You know Dave, your probably one of those people that think the Holocaust was all fake and lies too. You know how about doing some simple research before you let stupidity come out you mouth.

      February 3, 2012 at 2:17 pm | Report abuse |
    • MC

      Where is your proof or any facts? Just for the record this information has always been available. Read much?

      February 3, 2012 at 2:18 pm | Report abuse |
      • Joe from CT, not Liebeman

        Aw, c'mon guys, give DAve a break. He learned everything about history he needs listening to Glenn and Rush, and reading the diaries of Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms.

        February 4, 2012 at 1:47 pm | Report abuse |
  9. supernova

    That photo is heartwarming – but I am thinking how these 2 people were fighting and supporting a country that, at that particular time, treated them very badly. This beautiful couple were fighting TWO wars (at home and abroad) but yet they still manage to smile.

    February 3, 2012 at 12:32 pm | Report abuse |
    • Joe from CT, not Liebeman

      Read about how Jessie Owens and Jackie Robinson were treated, too.

      February 4, 2012 at 1:48 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Melissa

    It's about time they are being acknowledged for there contributions, long over due.

    February 2, 2012 at 11:00 pm | Report abuse |
  11. brian

    Why aren't the syphilis tests mentioned as part of the Tuskegee heritage?

    February 2, 2012 at 5:50 pm | Report abuse |
  12. larry5

    The Democrats in the House and Senate fought the establishment of black military units and tried everything they could think of to block such activity. The gave lib service to the idea when it became obvious that they had lost the battle.

    February 2, 2012 at 3:14 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Test

    Was his tie cut in the picture? i cant seem to make sense of it.

    February 2, 2012 at 2:17 pm | Report abuse |
    • penna_local

      No, Test, his tie is tucked between 2 of his shirt buttons. I've seen a lot of pictures of military men wearing their ties that way.

      February 2, 2012 at 2:29 pm | Report abuse |
    • Miss Billie

      It's tucked into his shirt.

      February 3, 2012 at 9:55 am | Report abuse |
    • Charles W. (Chaz) Dryden, Jr

      Aloha. Hope you enjoyed Red Tails
      At that time the tie was worn tucked into the uniform shirt between the second and third button of the shirt when wearing the shirt as the outer garmet.

      Chaz Dryden

      February 3, 2012 at 11:50 am | Report abuse |
      • Cheryl

        Hi Chaz, my dad was an airman too; "Cool Pappa Gould", who ended up a POW for awhile. Yes I enjoyed the blog and had goosebumps watching the movie – as you can understand.

        February 4, 2012 at 4:01 am | Report abuse |
  14. wgee


    February 2, 2012 at 2:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • jgumbrechtcnn

      wgee, here's the contact info for the UC-Riverside Tuskegee archive: http://library.ucr.edu/?view=tuskegee/contact.html

      February 2, 2012 at 2:21 pm | Report abuse |
    • Kriss greenn

      Wgee, I love it when people take the time to look further in to a subject they may not know much about. Good on you:-)

      February 3, 2012 at 2:19 pm | Report abuse |