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Haiti History 101: The Haitian Tuskegee Airmen
Did you know that there were Haitians recruited to fight in World War II for the United States? In the early 1940s, an ad appeared in a Haitian newspaper
recruiting 40 pilots for training at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.
We know for sure that at least 5 pilots went for training at the Tuskegee Institute, and most of them were in the Haitian Army or Airforce. And we know their names:
Eberle J. Guilbaud
The first three men (Raymond Cassagnol, Alix Pasquet, and Philippe Célestin) left Port-au-Prince in February of 1943 for Alabama (Via Puerto Rico, via Miami via Jacksonville), and had to ride in a Blacks-Only transportation or had to sit in the back of trains, as blatant segregation was in full swing in those days, something they were totally unaccustomed to in Haiti. Cassagnol would later write in his autobiography Mémoires d’un Révolutionaire
that he avoided going off the Tuskegee Army Training Field and off the campus, because he couldn’t stand to be made to feel inferior, and the humiliation that came with it.
It was an exciting time for the three. The Afro American
, one of the most popular and widely circulated black newspapers of the time, even had a feature story on the men in its April 10, 1943 issue. In it, it was revealed
that Pasquet and Célestin were graduates of their native land’s Ecole Militaire D’Haiti, and were already officers, while Cassagnol had worked as a mechanic for the Haitian Airforce.
World War II was in full swing and the USA was in need of soldiers, but Cassagnol maintains that the requirements were still very rigid, so much so that one of them didn’t make it. Célestin was a “washout”, a term used to describe someone who’s eliminated during training at Tuskegee. He succeeded in the Primary stage, and the Basic Stage, but was eliminated during the Upper Basic stage. Shortly after Cassagnol’s graduation, three more Haitian pilots were recruited from Haiti: Sergeant/Lieutenant Ludovic Audant and Sergeant/Lieutenant Nicolas Pelissier and Eberle Guilbaud.
This is a photo of Eberle Guilbaud. According to the records of the Tuskegee Institute, Guilbaud graduated in April of 1944. Historians have indicated that he was born around 1920, so he was not even 25, when he completed pilot training at the Institute. He was to meet a terrible end. About 15 years later after his triumph, he was killed during a plane hijacking along with several others, when opponents of the Duvalier government hijacked a Haitian plane that was heading to Cuba.
Alix Pasquet was in the Haitian Airforce before becoming a Tuskegee Airman. According to Cassagnol’s autobiography, Pasquet got ill during training and as a result didn’t graduate at the same time as his compatriots.
Here are some of the Haitian Tuskegee Airmen, looking over flight instructions during their training. Phillipe Célestin is the one in the far left.
So what became of them after Tuskegee? We’ve already discussed Guilbaud. Cassagnol (in the insert photo to the right) was in a pilot in Haiti for a time and was an entrepreneur, owning various businesses. Then he went into exile, and lived in Alabama, then retired in Orlando, FL.
Like Guilbaud, Célestin (nicknamed Phito, and seen in the little photo to the right) was to meet a terrible end. He was arrested for insubordination under the Francois Duvalier government one day, and was never to be heard from or seen again. Ever. As recounted in the book Haiti After the Duvaliers by Elizabeth Abbott, Pasquet (nicknamed Sonson) died a horrendous death. He was serving as the captain of the Haitian Army, then was exiled. From exile, he gathered up a couple of his army friends in Miami, including 5 Americans and planned an invasion of Haiti to get rid of Haitian president Francois Duvalier. Pasquet and his cohorts landed in St Marc and from there took over the army barracks headquarters in Port-au-Prince, according to the book From Glory to Disgrace: the Haitian army, 1804-1994 by Prosper Avril (a former president of Haiti and also an army officer).
But his invasion was soon crushed when an escapee from the army barracks slipped, and someone from Pasquet’s camp sent one of the captives to buy cigarettes. The captive told the president and his men all that he had seen, and from there Pasquet was captured. He was killed along with his brother in law Philippe Dominique and friend Henri Perpignan, themselves two former officers in the Haitian army. Or more precisely, according to the book Red Heat: Terror, Conspiracy, and Murder in the Cold War Caribbean by Alex von Tunzelmann their heads were blown off with grenades. The 5 Americans that Pasquet had hired to take part in the invasion were also killed (shot). Then afterwards, their bodies were ordered to be displayed all over the streets of Port-au-Prince.
Pasquet’s son Alix Pasquet Jr, would marry Michele Bennett, who after her divorce from him, would later marry Jean-Claude Duvalier, the son-successor of Francois Duvalier. And thus ended the life of the another of the Haitian Tuskegee Airmen.
It would be years before the accomplishments of the Tuskegee Airmen would be acknowledged. Cassagnol, who would become the only surviving of the Tuskegee Airmen (Haitian or otherwise) was a special guest at the inauguration of US President Barack Obama in 2009. Decades before, he had been honored for his contributions to World War II as a Tuskegee Airman gunpilot in Italy, and years later his achievements were recognized by the USA as were that of Guilbaud and Pasquet. Pasquet’s son accepted his award on behalf of his late father.
Here is a photo of Cassagnol in his later years, at 89 years old, the week of the Obama Inauguration. In April 2010, Cassagnol was again honored with a medal from Congress.
*Courtesy of eminent Haitian
Dupuy. All photos Wehaitians.com.
Wehaitians.com, the scholarly journal of
democracy and human rights