In a grainy black-and-white photograph, Lt. Charles B. Hall holds up an ice-cold bottle of
Hall, one of 43 pilots known as the Tuskegee Airmen, was handed a Coke as a reward from his squadron after becoming the first African-American to take down an enemy aircraft during World War II. He shot down a German fighter while his squadron was escorting U.S. bombers over Sicily, Italy.
The image is a powerful documentation of Robert Woodruff’s promise that any uniformed U.S. soldier would be able enjoy a bottle of
U.S. Air Force
U.S. Air Force
By the end of the war, Hall had been promoted to major and became the first African-American to be awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. He flew nearly 200 combat missions during his military career.
Towards end of his military service, Hall went on a year-long war bond drive before moving to Chicago to work as an insurance agent. A few years later, he relocated to Oklahoma City, where he worked at Tinker Air Force Base and then the Federal Aviation Administration.
Despite his status as an aviation trailblazer, Hall was a quiet, humble man who rarely spoke of his prominent place in the history books.
“As a kid, I didn’t even know he was a Tuskegee Airman,” recalled his youngest daughter, Kelli Jones, who was only nine when her dad passed away in 1971 at age 51. “I remember kids in the neighborhood telling me he was famous, that he was a hero, but I had no idea. I just knew him as a great dad.”
Jones said the historic photo of her dad enjoying a Coke was not displayed in her family’s home; it was packed away, unframed, Hall’s Air Force uniform. “I always thought it was a cool picture,” she said, “but didn’t realize its significance.”
Hall was born in 1920 in the small rural town of Brazil, Indiana. After graduating high school, he enrolled at Eastern Illinois State Teachers College, where he ran track and played football. Around this time, President Roosevelt opened up a pilot training program to African-Americans. Hall applied and was selected to train at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.
“At the time, the armed forces were segregated, with African-Americans relegated to jobs like quarter masters – nothing on front lines,” explains Mahlon Smith, president of the Charles B. Hall Chapter of The Tuskegee Airmen Inc. “In fact, a U.S. Army Corps report said blacks were not capable of flying combat aircraft. But Charles Hall proved them wrong when he shot down that aircraft.”
The Tuskegee program was often referred to as a test, Smith said, because many powers-that-be didn’t think it would work. “But the program graduated several pilots who went on to earn their wings, which proved it was working,” he added. “It showed that African-Americans could do the job, and that flying was about ability and not skin color. That by providing equal opportunity and training, these brave men could rise to the challenge.”
The Tuskegee Airmen’s combat record is legendary. They shot down 112 enemy aircraft, and the pilots were awarded 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses, 744 Air Medals, eight Purple Hearts and 14 Bronze Stars.
The chapter Smith leads is dedicated to preserving Hall’s legacy and that of the Tuskegee Airmen. Members give speeches to community groups and R.O.T.C. organizations. They also sponsor a summer camp to educate and prepare local Oklahoma City high school students for careers in aviation and aerospace. “We take them to the FAA, Tinker Air Force Base and Boeing, and we connect them with several Oklahoma colleges for scholarship opportunities,” Smith said.
In 2007 the Charles B. Hall Chapter of The Tuskegee Airmen Inc. and the Air Force Association dedicated a statue of Maj. Hall in the Tinker Air Force Base airpark named for him.
“It’s such a great honor to have a living testimony to my dad,” Jones said. “Because his story – and the story of the Tuskegee Airmen – is part of black history. It’s part of American history.”
‘Share Your Service Story’
In observance of Black History Month, Americans can share their military service stories on social media for a chance to win one $5,000 or one of three $1,000 scholarships. The “Share Your Service Story” contest, sponsored by
Applicants can post a photo or video (maximum 2 minutes) to either Twitter or Instagram sharing their service story, or the service story of one of their relatives, with the hashtag #ShareYourServiceStoryContest. Learn more at Coke.com/ShareYourServiceStory.