TAMPA -- Early in George E. Hardy's military career, when he was flying strafing flights over war-torn Europe, the 90-year-old retired lieutenant colonel also fought an enemy that wore the same uniform as him.
Thursday during a speech at MacDill Air Force Base, the U.S. Air Force retiree from Sarasota looked back on his career, which began with flight training at Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama and included bombing missions over Korea and combat sorties over Vietnam. His long journey finally ended with acceptance of and deep respect from those within and outside the ranks.
He was among the first black airmen to fly combat missions that provided escorts for bombers in Europe in 1945.
"When I look back at my career, I'm so proud of the Air Force," he said, "that I was able to participate in that and survive."
He fought Nazis, North Koreans and Viet Cong, and some U.S. military commanders who discriminated against him and his fellow Tuskegee airmen because of the color of their skin.
"Segregation back then was a part of the fabric of this country," he said. "And it was enforced. And the military was segregated as well."
Hardy spoke to a diverse group of about 150 airmen in MacDill's Davis Conference Center, named for Benjamin Oliver Davis, who commanded the Tuskegee Airmen during World War II and who was the first black Air Force general. It was the base's observance of National Black History Month.
"What a story," Col. Daniel H. Tulley, commander, of the 6th Air Mobility Wing at MacDill, said of Hardy's experiences that spanned a career of nearly 30 years. "It's not as simple as you may think, or what you may have seen in the movies."
Hardy was introduced to a standing ovation in the auditorium, where he gave a 25-minute recap of his life and insights into the struggles he faced as a career Air Force officer.
A native of Philadelphia, Hardy was first drawn to flight while watching news-reel footage of sorties over Europe during the early stages of World War II. He joined the U.S. Army Air Corps at 18 in July 1943 and in December of that year, he started flight training at the Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama.
"We had a certain problem in this country, across the South," he said. "Racial discrimination and segregation was enforced. We were able to overcome most of those restrictions. It's not over. We still have to go forward."
At Tuskegee, Hardy trained on several fighter planes, including the Fairchild PT-19 Cornell, the Vultee BT-Valiant and the Curtiss P-40 Warhawk, according to a biography published five years ago in the 20th Century Aviation Magazine.
He was promoted to second lieutenant in September 1944 and in February 1945, he shipped out to join the 99th Fighter Squadron, 332nd Fighter Group, based at Ramitelli Air Base in Italy. During the closing months of World War II, Hardy flew 21 escort and strafing missions over Europe.
He said that at the time, he was flying fighter aircraft, but had no idea how to drive a car.
After the war, he took some time off and attended the New York University School of Engineering and in June 1948, he returned to active duty with the 301st Fighter Squadron, 332nd Fighter Group, at Lockbourne Air Force Base in Ohio.
He was comfortable there, he was with other black airmen, many of whom he knew from Tuskegee. That's when the Air Force announced it was integrating its ranks. Hardy said he was worried.
"The change really came before I was ready for it," he said. "I was really floored by that."
He was newly married, with a baby on the way, and comfortable with his colleagues at Lockbourne.
"I knew a lot of people and was friendly with them," he said. "With integration, we might end up at a base with all whites and I wouldn't know anyone.
"I knew it was the best thing for us," he said, "but not at that time."
And his fears were realized that year.
"Suddenly," he said, "we all got transfers to Air Force bases all over the world."
In September 1948, Hardy became part of the Guam-based 28th Bombardment Squadron, 19th Bombardment Group, as a maintenance officer. The unit flew Boeing B-29 Superfortresses and when the Korean War broke out in June 1950, the 19th Bombardment Group moved to Okinawa to begin combat missions over Korea. As copilot there, Hardy flew six combat missions.
On the seventh mission, he said, racial prejudice reared up.
On July 12, 1950, Hardy was in the copilot's seat getting ready for a combat mission when he heard his commander, who had never spoken to him outside the line of duty, yell for him to get off the plane.
Hardy reluctantly left and the plane took off with a replacement copilot.
On that mission, a North Korean fighter attacked the B-29, setting an engine on fire which forced the airmen to abandon the crippled aircraft.
"My crew had to bail out," he recalled, "and I wasn't with them."
Two were captured by North Korean soldiers, he said, the rest were rescued by U.S. troops. That aircraft was the first B-29 downed over Korea by enemy fire.
Hardy returned to the cockpit and went on to complete a total of 45 combat flights over Korea, in spite of that run-in with his superior officer.
"I tell that story to illustrate the type of people you would run into," he said. Two years later, Hardy again would serve under that same commander, but the man had changed, Hardy said.
"I worked for him for 10 years," Hardy said, "and it was about the best 10 years of my career."
In 1969, with his military tenure winding down, Hardy began flying a Fairchild AC-119 Stinger gunship and in April 1970, he was attached to the 18th Special Operations Squadron in Vietnam, out of the Udorn Royal Thai Air Force Base in Thailand and later Da Nang Air Base in Vietnam.
The pilots there searched for and attacked enemy supply routes through northern Laos and along the Ho Chi Minh Trail at night. Hardy flew 70 sorties.
He was 45 years old at the time, commanding pilots who were 19 and 20, just like him when he came up, and there were a lot of similarities, including the desire to leave the ground, regardless of whatever struggles were put before them.
"We had to live with what was there," he said of his Tuskegee days. "We wanted to fly. We did what was necessary to fly."
He began retirement in November 1971 after a military career in which he received the Distinguished Flying Cross with Valor, the Air Medal with 11 Oak Leaf Clusters and the Commendation Medal with one Oak Leaf Cluster.
He received an honorary doctorate of public service from Tuskegee University in 2006.
"Looking back, it was worth it," he said. "We paid a price, But it was a price we were glad to pay."