Love is in the airPublished 8:47pm Friday, February 11, 2011
Off in the distance in the skies above Lake Martin, usually near 3,000 feet, retired Air Force Lt. Col. Herbert Eugene Carter Sr., who was then a cadet, would spy a yellow speck, from his military training aircraft. This is the way a unique courtship between the Tuskegee Airman and his future wife, Mildred Hemmons, would begin when they periodically set up the rendezvous for weekends during the first half of 1942. The previous year on Feb. 1 – 70 years ago – Mildred made history when she became the first woman of color to earn a private pilot’s license in the state of Alabama.
This unusual romantic encounters lasted for the five months leading up to the time, during World War II, that Herbert received his commission.
At the time Herbert was a cadet who already had a private pilot’s license in hand. He was training at Tuskegee Army Airfield, while Mildred was a clerk for the base’s Commandant of Cadets.
The couple was not allowed to go out or associate with each other and cadets were not allowed to get married. Once the Commandant found out about their status, Herbert, as the Captain of Cadets, was forbidden to enter the office where his future wife worked, which was also where he had to report for his troops’ orders. And their ability to meet up wasn’t helped by the fact that all cadets were basically confined to the base 24 hours a day – week in and week out.
“I was (told) not to come to cadet headquarters and I could not socialize with Mildred on base,” said Herbert, who is affectionately known as Gene to his wife, family and friends.
On Saturdays and Sundays over that five month period in 1942, Mildred, who is called Mil by her husband and other loved ones, would climb into a yellow Piper Cup, while Herbert would head to the base’s flight deck and finagle his way into a trainer plane like an AT-6, a BT-13 or “whatever I could get my hands on.”
Officially, they never flew together.
“We thought about the fact that she was flying and that I was flying and I asked her quite frequently, thereafter, would she be flying that weekend,” said Herbert in a DVD that was made to capture their story. “She’d say, ‘Yes,’ and I think she did it sometimes just to meet me over Lake Martin.”
According to Herbert, their choice of the lake as the gathering spot was due to the fact that “Martin Lake was a great big target that was close to Tuskegee Army Airfield.”
Back in the early 1940s in the skies above Lake Martin, when Herbert eyed the yellow speck he would pull up to Mildred’s plane and drop his craft’s speed close to the stalling threshold.
“We didn’t have voice radio contact,” Herbert said. “(So) I would fly formation alongside her and wave (and) we would do some hand signals. I was just happy to be up there with her.”
Sometimes Herbert would break the two-plane rank, fly off out of sight only to return and buzz her plane, playing a form of leapfrog before heading back to the base.
In August of that same year the two got married and seven months later he was sent to the European war theater as a member of the 99th Fighter Squadron, the first of the four Tuskegee Airmen classes.