The first African-American pilots trained by the United States Army Air Corps obtained their wings at the Tuskegee military airfield in Alabama during World War II. Beginning in the spring of 1943, Tuskegee fighter pilots received advanced training in Michigan.
The relative safety of the U.S. Midwest, along with weather and geographic conditions approaching what Airmen might expect in Europe, encouraged the military to use Selfridge airfields northeast of Detroit and Oscoda on the shores of Lake Huron.
Unfortunately, as with many similar training programs during WWII, dozens of accidents occurred in Michigan resulting in the loss of planes and crew. Fifteen Tuskegee airmen were killed while training in the state; five pilots were lost in Lake Huron, one in the St. Clair River and nine as a result of land crashes or mid-air collisions.
Frank H. Moody was born in Oklahoma and raised in Los Angeles. He obtained his wings at Tuskegee in February 1944 and became a member of an elite group of pilots belonging to the 332nd Fighter Group which would come to be known as the “Red Tails”.
After being appointed a second lieutenant in the United States Army, Moody transferred to Selfridge Field for advanced training on the P-39 Airacobra.
Manufactured by Bell Aircraft Corporation, the Airacobra was 30 feet, 2 inches long and had a wingspan of 34 feet. The single-seater aircraft had a range of 650 miles, could reach speeds of 385 mph, and was armed with a 37-millimeter cannon and four .50 caliber machine guns.
On April 11, 1944, Lieutenant Moody and three other pilots were conducting live fire exercises over Lake Huron when his Airacobra released a trail of black smoke. Moody lifted his nose slightly from the plane, then wheeled into the lake. He was killed instantly. His body was later found in the St. Clair River and was sent back to Los Angeles for burial.
On April 11, 2014, exactly 70 years to the day after the crash, David Losinski and his son Drew discovered a plane wreck while diving in Lake Huron. They located the forward instrument panel which contained the aircraft’s radio call sign, which positively identified the wreckage as being the Airacobra flown by Moody.
Losinski invited Wayne Lusardi, marine archaeologist from the Michigan State Department of Natural Resources, to participate in scouting dives at the site. Lusardi then led several expeditions to the wreckage site to document the aircraft and its associated artifacts.
In 2015, Lusardi and volunteer divers from the National Association of Black Scuba Divers inspected the wreckage. The following summer, the wreckage was inspected using a remote control vehicle and Lusardi began the investigation into a second Tuskegee Airacobra which crashed into the St. Clair River with the loss of the officer. flight Nathanial Porter Rayburg.
In 2018, the state of Michigan issued an archaeological salvage permit for the Moody’s aircraft to the National Museum of the Tuskegee Airmen in Detroit.
A selected group of artifacts were recovered from the site, including the 2 inch thick bulletproof windshield, the starboard side door made by Hudson Motor Company, the forward dashboard containing 16 gauges, a mast wooden radio and two steel drive shaft sections that connected the engine – which was placed behind the pilot – to the gearbox and propeller in the forward fuselage.
The state renewed the archaeological recovery permit in 2021, and Lusardi, working with Dr. Brian Smith of the Tuskegee Airmen’s Museum, continued to document the wreckage and artifact removal from Lake Huron.
A team of volunteer divers and archaeologists from across the country participated in the project. Dozens of artifacts have been accurately measured, photographed and mapped on the lake bottom, and many have been recovered and transported to Detroit for preservation. All materials must go through a long process to preserve the integrity of the artifacts and allow them to be dried and displayed.
At 10:30 a.m. on Saturday, August 28, a memorial was opened at International Flag Plaza in Port Huron to honor the 15 Tuskegee Airmen killed in training crashes in Michigan. The Tuskegee Airmen Dedication Ceremony is one in a series of events taking place this week to honor the Airmen.
The impact of the Tuskegee Airmen on northeast Michigan, their contribution to the war effort, and their ultimate sacrifice will be long remembered here and across the country.
Moody’s aircraft documentation was much more than an archaeological investigation of a plane wreck. It was a dive into history – and into the life of a man.
At just 22 when he was tragically killed in 1944, Moody was preparing to fight for his country. His death was not in vain.
The airmen of Tuskegee overcame unimaginable obstacles. They learned to fly. They became officers and leaders of men.
They flew away!