Pilot Fred Hutcherson Jr.

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Evanston’s Fred Hutcherson Jr. (1912-62) – a pilot with a storied career in Evanston, Chicago and Miami, and in South, Central and North America – was regularly celebrated in American newspapers as the first African American pilot to fly across the Atlantic Ocean. But it was his stint during World War II as a flying instructor in Alabama at the Tuskegee Army Air Field that earned him a Congressional Gold Medal.

This medal, America’s highest civilian honor, was given in 2007 to the Tuskegee Airmen as a group for their contribution as World War II pilots. Last month, Fred Hutcherson III accepted on his father’s behalf a bronze replica of the Tuskegee Airmen medal. Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky presented the medal to him at an emotional ceremony June 18 at Shorefront Legacy Center. She noted his father is among the elite, as the Congressonal Gold Medal, first given to George Washington, has since been awarded to fewer than 400 outstanding individuals and groups.

The medal cited the all-black Tuskegee Airmen’s “unique military record that inspired revolutionary reform in the Armed Forces.” This reform refers to President Truman’s 1948 executive order No. 9981 endorsing equality of treatment and opportunity in all U.S. military groups, an act that eventually ended racial segregation in the armed forces of this country.

Officer Hutcherson faced this inequality from the start of his military career. Before the U.S. entered World War II, he tried to enlist in the U.S. Ferry Command but was rejected. In 1943, after the U.S. entered the war, he tried to enlist in the Army Air Force, even making a trip to Washington, D.C., to make this happen. He was rejected.

Fred Hutcherson had been flying almost half his life and had been described by many a pilot as “a natural,” so he was pretty sure he wasn’t rejected because of his skills. He figured the real problem was the color of his skin, his son said.

Flight Officer Hutcherson learned to fly at age 18, soon after his dad gave him a sweet, open-cockpit biplane, the OX5 Travel Air. Stories pop up now and again about his making an occasional landing and take-off along west Emerson, still a dirt road back in the 1930s.

However, most of his stick-time was spent flying near the Northwest Airport in Des Plaines, about eight miles west of Evanston on Milwaukee at Central. By the time he was 20, he was managing the airport.

When he was on the ground, he spent hours haunting the Curtiss Wright airfield, established in 1929, before Glenview Naval Air Station took over the site. He entertained himself watching the planes land and take off and was even allowed to tinker with obsolete, out-of-commission engines stowed there.

Around 1932 he was named manager of Northbrook’s Sky Harbor Airport, where flyers Roy Guthier and a Mr. Matthews, an African American, took him under their wing. By 1939 he was renewing his pilot’s license – #34679 – and flying charter planes out of Harlem Airport at 87th and Harlem as “Hutcherson’s Flying Service.”

But Fred Hutcherson wanted more. He wanted to fly for his country. When he found he wasn’t wanted, he headed to Canada, where he became a flight instructor for the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) in 1940. The next year he volunteered for the RCAF Ferry Command, a new program that would boost him into the air. After rigorous testing, he was graduated into the command and became one of only 33 men, and the only black man, chosen to fly much-needed bombers to England for use in the war. The bombers were American-made machines that were part of the new 1941 Lend-Lease program that kept the U.S. out of the war, yet allowed it to help Great Britain fight the Nazis by providing war weapons and equipment.

Capt. Hutcherson’s very first flight across the Atlantic in 1941 – the first by any African American pilot – was almost the death of him, he told the Chicago Defender a year later. He and his two-man crew, a copilot/navigator and a radio man, were half-way to Scotland when their engine “went dead, stopped cold. We were at 23,000 feet, but when the engine stopped we began to do the inevitable. We started to drop.” He kept trying to switch the engine back on but all he got was an occasional sputter. Only 17,000 feet from the white-caps, he said, “they looked like a million outstretched hands reaching up after us.” At 16,000 feet the engine caught, but by then, he said, his Scottish radio operator’s hair had “turned from deep black to chalk gray in the course of those few minutes.”

Hair-raising, indeed. But that was why he was earning $1,000 a month. It was danger pay. Flying the heavy bombers across an ocean was risky enough, but he was flying them unarmed during a war, flying in groups of two and three bombers over the treacherous waters of the North Atlantic where U-boats prowled. That was one of the Lend-Lease regulations, says Fred Hutcherson III, “no weaponry.” And it wasn’t all that safe coming back either, he said, as the pilots usually wound up returning by ships that sometimes took 14 days to cross the ocean.

By 1942 Capt. Hutcherson had flown across the Atlantic dozens of times. “More times than most of us have crossed state lines,” said 5th Ward Alderman Edwin B. Jourdain, introducing him to fellow aldermen in November 1942. “He has been one of the famous ferry command, daring death over the ocean to get all-important planes across to allied flyers. He has taught aviation to young Canadians who are now taking their toll on Hitler’s planes.”

Asked by Ald. Merrick to tell of his exploits, the captain described flying over the North Atlantic, often at temperatures of 60° below zero. Once, he said, his hands were numb, frozen so stiff he doubted they could maneuver the instruments for a successful landing. His solution? He let the bomber descend so he could fly an extra 45 minutes in warmer air while he waited for his hands to thaw out.

Throughout the war the Hutcherson name was all over Chicago newspapers as the “Fred Hutcherson Jr. Unit, Inc.” This women’s group was formed to support the troops. It held benefits, sent packages, collected cigarettes and made the soldier’s life easier, especially for those at the Service Men’s Center #3 in the heart of Bronzeville. Every year of the war its members marched in the Bud Billiken parade and regularly made the Defender’s society pages. Similar groups named for Capt. Hutcherson were also started in Beloit, Bloomington-Normal and Rockford.

In 1943 Capt. Hutcherson left the RCAF Ferry Command and, with a six-month deferment from the draft board, signed on with the British West Indian Airways as a transport pilot based in Miami. In late 1943 he was happy to resign because the U.S. Army finally wanted him. The Army was sending him to Tuskegee Army Air Field, where he would train black pilots with the U.S. Air Corps. until the end of the war.

After the war, he and other Tuskegee pilots started the DODO chapter of Tuskegee Airmen, Inc., so named because, like the dodo bird, they were flightless.

But, in fact, Flight Officer Hutcherson persisted and always found a way to stay in the air. He worked as a flying instructor at the Ravenswood Airport, on Touhy north of where O’Hare Airport now is. In 1946, he and two former Tuskegee airmen founded a pilot school in Haiti. He also began selling small planes, becoming possibly the first black distributor for Beechcraft, founded by Walter Beech, designer of his beloved first plane, the Travel Air.

In 1949 he moved on to become chief pilot for a new airline in Columbia, South America, the Sociedad Aereonautic Medellin (SAM). In 1951 he was flying for Midway Air Lines Charter Service out of Sky Harbor and by 1956 had his own charter firm based at Meigs Field.

Lake Airways Charter Service lasted until 1959. His father died then, and he took over the family store at the northwest corner of Asbury and Emerson, the same store he used to buzz and wait for his family and friends to run out and wave at him so he could show off with some fancy flying stunts. But now he was grounded and ran the business first as a grocery and then as the Corner Spot hot dog stand.

Only three years later he passed away. Flight Officer Fred Hutcherson Jr. died of leukemia on his 50th birthday, July 6, 1962, at Evanston Community Hospital. He was survived by his wife Regina Laurent Hutcherson and their son, Fred III. After the funeral at Ebenezer A.M.E. Church, he was buried at Montrose Cemetery in Chicago, accompanied by an aerial salute from pilot friends flying in formation.

Almost 50 years later, on June 18, more than 100 family members, friends and fellow Evanstonians saluted this aviation pioneer and military pilot once again by attending the posthumous presentation of the Congressional Gold Medal. Ronald Laurent got the crowd into it when he told how his uncle once used rutty Emerson Street as his landing strip. To us, he said, Fred Hutcherson Jr. was “like a Hollywood star, slender and handsome.”

“A true American patriot,” is what Congressman Schakowsky called him. As she presented the medal to his son, scores of toy planes flew down from the balcony, buzzing the audience much as he once buzzed the homes of his family and friends. Guests at the event, organized by Shorefront’s Dino Robinson, included former Mayor Lorraine H. Morton standing in for Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl, Aldermen Delores Holmes and Peter Braithwaite, former alderman Judge Lionel Jean-Baptiste, Cook County Commissioner Larry Suffredin and state representatives Robyn Gabel and Daniel Biss.