Tuskegee airman, 94, talks about his service, triumphs

Keel, father of 8, resides in Clermont with his wife

CLERMONT, Fla. – During World War II, there were a group of blacks serving as the first black aviators in the war.

Daniel Keel, 94, a Tuskegee airman who now resides in Clermont, spoke to News 6 about his time in the United States Army Air Forces.

Keel wanted to be a pilot, and in his early twenties he went to Biloxi, Mississippi, to Keesler Air Force Base for basic training.

Keel, who was drafted, would not be able to anticipate the impact that he and his fellow airmen would make in history.

He became a part of the Tuskegee Experience and was conducted by the U.S. War Department and the Army Air Corps from 1941 to 1949, where blacks were trained in the military to fly in combat.

Keel completed a series of tests both mental and physical. He passed and moved on to train at Tuskegee Institute, now known as Tuskegee University, in Tuskegee, Alabama.

He wanted to be pilot, but the Army decided to form another group: bombardiers.

"That group needed navigators, so when we got to Tuskegee Army Air Base, they asked would any of us like to be navigators? Of course we all said no, we wanted to be pilots,” Keel said.

However, Keel and his fellow comrades faced discrimination when they arrived in Texas for their training. This discrimination would follow them throughout their careers.

“Right after we got off the train at Midland Air Force Army Base, a white officer walked up to us and told us that he was Lt. Col. Phelps. He told us that he was a deputy commander at Midland army air base and that he was born in Texas, raised in Texas and expects to die in Texas. And if we ... did not know our place while we were in his state of Texas, he’d spell it out for us."

Phelps told them that the rules: They could not eat in the mess hall, they could not go into the officers club, they could not sit in the officers section in the theater, and if they were to go to town they had to ride in the back of the bus.

This encounter to Phelps would not be the last one for the men. They faced a court martial after they began to ask why they were fed last in the mess hall.

“We noticed that every time a group of white cadets came and sat down they were promptly fed. After the last group that's been fed, the sergeant of recruits started to bring us officers what was left of the food,” Keel said.
The group demanded to be fed, and they were threatened with a court martial the next day.

This would not be the last run-in with Phelps, but the group was needed to return to Alabama for pilot training.

Keel was one of three that was able to make it through pilot training out of the 27 people that were in his class.

He was now not only a navigator and bombardier, he had reached his goal of becoming a pilot -- something that he set his mind to when he entered the United States Army Air Forces. He was among five others that held this title.

Keel finished his service in 1946 and received his commercial pilot’s license. Blacks were not able to fly commercially until the 1960s.