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TULLAHOMA, Tenn. — America’s first black aviators flew and fought for a nation that often treated enemy prisoners of war better than its own minority pilots, a veteran of the World War II air war over Europe said here Wednesday.

Retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Charles W. Dryden detailed the exploits of the Tuskegee Airmen in a program for Black History Month at the University of Tennessee Space Institute.

Charles W. Dryden

“The German POWs could go into the white side of the PX cafeteria, and we couldn’t go into the building,” Dryden said. “We had fought the Germans in the skies over Germany, and a member of the enemy in our country could do things that we Americans couldn’t.

“It broke my heart.”

In 1942 Dryden was among the first of some 992 black military aviators trained near Tuskegee, Ala., and known as the “Tuskegee Airmen.” He led six pilots against enemy fighters over Pantelleria, Sicily, on June 9, 1943, in the first aerial combat by black American pilots.

Sixty-six Tuskegee Airmen were killed in action during the war, and their unit, the 332nd fighter Group, downed 409 enemy aircraft without losing any of the U.S. bombers they were escorting, said Dryden, whose plane was named “A-Train.”

Dryden’s book about his experiences, “A-Train: Memoirs of a Tuskegee Airman,” was published in 1997 by the University of Alabama Press.

Speaking of the discrimination Dryden experienced, Vice President for Research and Information Technology Dwayne McCay said, “All I can say is I pray that no one else, no other group of people, has to suffer through those things again.”

Dryden’s visit to UTSI was sponsored by its chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers.

Dryden is a member of the Tuskegee Airmen, Inc., an organization that encourages African Americans and other minorities to take up careers in aerospace.