Until 1940, African-Americans were barred from flying for the U.S. military.

But in 1941, an all-African-American squadron based in Tuskegee, Ala., was formed and became known as the Tuskegee Airmen. Rigorous training molded the pilots and crew into a highly respected U.S. fighter group that served in World War II.

Now in their 80s and 90s, the number of surviving Tuskegee Airmen dwindles with each passing year. But memories of the airmen live on in Tucsonans Jim Scheib and Ralph Stewart.

We tell their stories today in observation of Black History Month.

Jim Scheib was a 20-year-old kid from Pittsburgh, in control of a 30-ton B-24 bomber, returning from a mission deep in Germany during World War II.

It was Nov. 17, 1944, and his aircraft, named Tail Heavy, had been hit by flak from German anti-aircraft, puncturing the oxygen system that supported half the crew. Four men — including the pilot — passed out from lack of oxygen and faced certain brain damage and death at 25,000 feet.

As co-pilot, Scheib had two choices — continue in formation with the other bombers at 25,000 feet or drop down to 15,000 feet, where there would be enough oxygen for the men to survive but no protection from German pilots.

“I had to make a decision. I could remain in my slot position with our bomber squadron and fly back amid the safety of 27 other B-24s and all of their 270 machine guns, or I could leave the formation,” recalled the 88-year-old Tucsonan. “I knew if I stayed there, I would take four dead guys back with me. There really wasn’t a decision to make.”

The squadron of seven B-24s was maintaining radio silence, so Scheib wagged the tail of his bomber, indicating spread formation. He was leaving the pack.

“I put the plane in a power dive and started down from 25,000 feet to 15,000. When we got there, the guys began to come around.”

But it was a dangerous place to be. “The other 27 airplanes were two miles above us. I was flying all by myself, a straggler in the air. The German fighters loved to jump on stragglers.”

He told the crew to get their parachutes on and prepare to bail out in case they were jumped by German fighters.

“About that time the flight engineer tapped me on the shoulder and pointed. I looked out and sitting on our wing was a P-51 fighter airplane, single-engine Mustang. I was almost in shock. Where did this guy come from? It was a Red Tail — a Tuskegee Airman.”

The Red Tail, who protected bombers from enemy fighters, had spotted Scheib and his crew leaving the formation, and he followed.

“We looked over there and saw this guy,” Scheib recalled. “That was great. Out the other window there was a twin-engine P-38 fighter airplane. You can kind of imagine the relief I felt. It was like being in a rocking chair — a personal escort by these two guys. Their presence was telling us there is a squadron of Red Tails up there and a squadron of P-38s and no enemy fighter would dare attack us.”

That was Scheib’s first encounter with Red Tails, one that quite possibly saved his life.

Oral History Project

Scheib has shared his experiences in a video through the Tuskegee Oral History Project that will be part of the National Park Service’s Tuskegee Airman exhibit in Tuskegee, Ala. He has taken part in panel discussions with Tuskegee Airmen and was featured on “NBC Nightly News.”

Until fairly recently, Scheib didn’t talk much about his experiences in the war, not even with family.

The youngest of five boys, he enlisted in the military in 1943. Following basic training, college classes and a battery of grueling tests, he was accepted into the aviation cadets in the Army Air Forces. He was part of a crew of 10 with the 485th Bomb Group, 831st Bomb Squadron, based in Italy.

Scheib flew 31 missions between October 1944 and May 1945.

Forever etched in his memory is Dec. 29, 1944, when his squadron flew a mission to bomb a railroad facility in northern Italy. On the way home, word came that the squadron could not land at their base. The field and its steel runway were covered with snow.

“You can imagine a 30-ton airplane landing on a steel runway that was covered with 5 inches of snow,” Scheib said. “Those airplanes would be doing pirouettes.”

The squadron of 17 B-24s was diverted to Ramitelli Airfield, Italy. It was a segregated air base made up of Tuskegee Airmen, all African-American. Scheib was assigned to a tent with a Tuskegee Airman from Kansas City.

Put a group of pilots together and the stories start flowing. The squadron spent the next five days waiting for the snow to melt and sharing tales from the war, as well as Christmas cookies sent to the Red Tails from home.

“They shared all of their precious stuff with us,” Scheib recalled. “When talking to another pilot, there is an instant bond.”

Five days later, there were warm farewells, and an invitation to return if ever close by.

After the war, Scheib married his sweetheart, Ann. The two have been married 66 years. They raised five kids in Ohio, and have eight grandkids, six great-grandkids and one great-great-grandchild.

“Were you there when ... ?

Scheib stayed in the military 15 years and flew in what is believed to be the first mission in the Korean War. He joined the reserves and retired from civil service at age 60. He and Ann moved to Tucson 15 years ago to be near daughter Judy McCaleb and her family.

He has attended several reunions of his bomb group, and in 2011, Tuskegee Airmen joined in the reunion in San Diego. “The words were just flying back and forth — remember that, and were you there when … ?”

Legendary movie producer and director George Lucas, while preparing for the 2012 release of his movie “Red Tails,” learned of the reunion and the Tuskegee Airmen guests. He arranged for an Italian buffet to be served. One guest, a vintner from Napa Valley, provided wine from his cellars. Tom Brokaw sent a personalized “Greatest Generation” video.

Scheib is grateful for his experiences and the friendships he has made along the way. “It was really a marvelous experience.”

Black mechanic helped prove wisdom of ‘great experiment’

Ralph Stewart was drafted into the Army Air Forces in 1943, as World War II raged.

Stewart had an affinity for mechanics in high school in Illinois, and he was called to serve as a mechanic for B-25 and B-26 bombers and P-51 fighter aircraft during the war.

He spent a short time in training in Tuskegee, Ala. “They called it the great experiment, to see if blacks had brainpower to maintain a unit,” he said.

He said he “trained all over” and was prepared to go overseas as part of the ground crew if called up with the 477th Bomber Group, 619th Bomb Squadron.

“We were trained to support the whole unit,” said Stewart, 87. “There were good times and not-so-good times.” He said he’d rather focus on the good.

Stewart was never called up and remained stateside during the war. “We were backup. We were ready if they called us in as replacements.”

He called the pilots and other members of his unit “the best men in the world. They were very honorable.”

After the war, Stewart served in active duty and the reserves for 26 years. He became a helicopter mechanic, working with the U.S. Department of Defense in Chicago, and retired in 1983.

“I swore I would never live anywhere cold again, and we moved to Arizona in 1986,” said Stewart, who lives with Rosalyn, his wife of 56 years, at Atria Campana del Rio in Tucson

Stewart didn’t speak of his experiences with his five children or his many grandchildren and great-grandchildren until recently. He watched the movie “Red Tails” — which he called a Hollywood story — with his granddaughter.

“She didn’t know I had been part of that,” Stewart said. “I just feel like I was part of something that happened. It was a good experience.”

As for the experiment?

“It proved to itself it was successful, and we could do as well as anyone else. It changed a lot of perceptions. We’re in a better place now, and I think it’s only going to get better.”

Stewart said he’s come to know an African-American woman who is a lieutenant colonel and a pilot. “I would never have believed that could happen,” he said.

Last year, Stewart was honored by the 943rd Rescue Group, with the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base honor guard presenting him with an American flag. He is proud of his years of service and excited for the future.

“I like where we are going. I have so much respect for young people in the military. They can do anything they set their minds to.”

Contact local freelance writer Gabrielle Fimbres at gfimbres@comcast.net