The Tuskegee Airmen Won the First Air Force 'Top Gun' Aerial Gunnery Competition

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332nd pilots at the 1949 Air Force 'Top Gun' Aerial Gunnery Competition. (U.S. Air Force)

Lt. Col. James Harvey had one wish for much of his Air Force career. He wanted the 332nd Fighter Group -- the Tuskegee Airmen -- to be recognized for winning the Air Force's first-ever aerial gunnery competition.

"We were the original 'Top Gun,'" he told AARP Studios. "Our competitors didn't think we were real. We were Black and flying this obsolete aircraft. We weren't supposed to win it."

The 1949 Air Force Annual 'Top Gun' Weapons Meet winners with the competition trophy. (U.S. Air Force)
The 1949 Air Force Annual 'Top Gun' Weapons Meet winners with the competition trophy. (U.S. Air Force)

Harvey was drafted into the Army in 1943 as an Army Air Corps engineer. Just a few years earlier, he'd seen a group of Curtiss P-40 Warhawks flying over his home in Pennsylvania, which planted the idea of flying one someday into his mind. So when the chance to apply to the Air Corps' Aviation Cadet Training Program came up, he jumped at it.

In October 1944, he graduated from the Tuskegee Flight Program and was commissioned a second lieutenant. Like many of the new Tuskegee Airmen, he was assigned to replace pilots in the 332nd fighting in Europe. Although Harvey never saw action during World War II, he and his fellow Black pilots continued serving.

The postwar Tuskegee Airmen made history just a few years later, but their accomplishment went unrecognized for decades afterward.

Despite what the movie "Top Gun" will tell you, the U.S. military's first real-world "Top Gun" program wasn't set up by the Navy. It was an Air Force program that first took place in 1949. Tuskegee Airmen Capt. Alva Temple, 1st Lt. Harry Stewart, 1st Lt. James H. Harvey III and alternate Halbert Alexander, competing in P-47N Thunderbolts, would win it.

In January 1949, the chief of staff of the Air Force put a call out to all USAF fighter groups to send their three top scorers to represent their group at the first Top Gun "weapons meet."

The airmen went to Las Vegas Air Force Base, now called Nellis Air Force Base, and pilots competed in five events -- aerial gunnery, dive bombing, skip bombing, rocket firing and panel strafing. Lt. Col. James Harvey calls it the "highlight of my career."

Harvey has a reason for being proud of his team's achievements. Despite flying obsolete aircraft, they led the 10-day event almost every step of the way. Their competitors were flying the P-51 Mustang and the P-82 Twin Mustang fighters.

"It didn't matter, though," Harvey said. "It's the skill of the pilot that determines what's gonna happen. They were there to compete, and we were there to win."

The competition is now called "William Tell," and the winner of the annual event has their name added to the list of past winners in the Air Force Association's yearly almanac. For 46 years, the winner of the 1949 competition was listed as "unknown." It wasn't until 1995 that it finally listed the winner as the 332nd Fighter Group.

"When it was announced that we, the 332nd, had won the trophy, the room was quiet," Harvey recalled. "There was no applause or anything like that. Because we weren't supposed to win it. Little did I know, this was the last time the public would see the trophy for 55 years."

The trophy sat in storage at the National Museum of the United States Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, for much of that time. Harvey went on to fight in the Korean War, becoming the first Black jet pilot in combat, flying 126 combat missions. He retired in 1965.

Air Force pilot and Tuskegee Airman James Harvey in Korea. (James H. Harvey III)
Air Force pilot and Tuskegee Airman James Harvey in Korea. (James H. Harvey III)

Historian Zellie Rainey Orr discovered the trophy and the story of the 332nd's epic "Top Gun" victory. In 2004, the trophy was finally put on display in the Air Force museum. Harvey's wish that Nellis Air Force Base would recognize the win took a few more years and intervention from AARP.

AARP's Wish of a Lifetime program seeks to change the way society views the values of older people by granting them one of their lifelong wishes. It learned about Lt. Col. Harvey's story and looked into the true story. The result was that Nellis Air Force Base recognized the victory with a commemorative plaque posted there in January 2022, honoring the achievement of the Tuskegee Airmen.

"It proves that if you believe in something and you stay at it, you'll finally get the recognition you deserve," said Harvey, who turned 98 in 2021. "This plaque, finally, after many years, will be at the top, number one."

-- Blake Stilwell can be reached at blake.stilwell@military.com. He can also be found on Twitter @blakestilwell or on Facebook.

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