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Colonel James Harvey recognized as one of original Top Gun winners with Tuskegee Airmen

Col. Harvey and the 332nd Fighter Group are Honored for 1949 “Top Gun” Win

There is no doubt that Colonel James H. Harvey III, age 98, has shown great bravery and dedication to his country—but he has not always received the recognition he deserved.

Harvey was a member of the 332nd Fighter Group, better known as the Tuskegee Airmen. This group of young African American aviators braved not only the face of battle, but also racially motivated obstacles and misconceptions about their skills and abilities.

Harvey did not let that dissuade him from becoming an intrepid pilot. During the Korean War, he was the first African American jet bomber pilot and completed 126 missions.

After completing his time in the service, Harvey volunteered at local schools and veteran posts, sharing his experiences as a Tuskegee Airman.

He continues to share his story to inspire present and future generations to keep on fighting against social injustices. And the story you’re about to read is living proof that it is possible to do so!

On May 2, 1949, Harvey participated in the inaugural United States Air Force Continental Air Gunnery Meet. This exciting event was a ten-day “Top Gun” style competition held at Las Vegas Army Field, now known as Nellis Air Force Base.

To have a place on a team required that you were the best and had the highest scores across the entire Air Force. Harvey was among the talented aviators who traveled from all over the country to compete in aerial gunnery at 12,000 and 20,000 feet, skip bombing, rocket firing, panel strafing, and dive bombing.

Tuskegee Airman, Lt. Col. James Harvey III stands in front of Republic P-47 Thunderbolt WW-II era aircraft
Lt. Col. Harvey looks reads plaque about 332nd Fighter Group Tuskegee Airmen
Wish recipient Lt. Col. James Harvey enthusiastically boxes fists at the air and smiles

In addition to Harvey, the 332nd FG’s four team members included Capt. Alva Temple, 1st Lt. Harry Stewart, and 1st Lt. Halbert Alexander. They were supported by equally talented technicians and maintainers—also the best of the best in the USAF!

The competing units were flying newer F-51’s and F-82 Twin Mustangs, compared to the 332nd group’s much older P-47 Thunderbolt aircrafts. The other units thought these were obsolete and did not consider them as a true contender in the competition.

They would quickly change that opinion! The 332nd FG continually added points to their tally in every challenge.

But the competition was not without its dangers. One of their ground crew members was tragically killed while flying as a guest inside a F-82 Twin Mustang aircraft.

The team gathered at a local hotel and casino to grieve their lost friend. But even while wearing their military uniforms, they did not receive respect or compassion. Security guards quickly asked them to leave the segregated hotel.

The team found a silver lining within their grief: When the 10th and final day of the competition came, the 332nd FG learned that they had earned the highest score in the propeller class. They had won!

But to add insult to injury, the heroes of the day did not receive the grand buffet or celebration promised to the winners. Instead, the team quickly took a picture with a trophy. Days later, that trophy disappeared, and the winners of the 1949 competition were listed as “unknown” in the annual Air Force Almanac.

As decades passed, their accomplishment became lost and remained unrecognized.

Close up of the Tuskegee Airman Top Gun plaque
Tuskegee Airman, Lt. Col. James Harvey III, in front of private audience at the Top Gun Plaque ceremony at Nellis AFB

Harvey’s dedication to righting this wrong never wavered.

In 1995, the record books were corrected to acknowledge the 332nd FG as the winners! And finally, in 2004, the lost trophy was also found.

The pieces were coming together—however, there was one more piece missing in honoring the 332nd.

With the incredible support of the Air Force Association, Wish of a Lifetime and EY were honored to help Col. James Harvey and his fellow servicemen receive the recognition they deserved.

In September of 2021, Harvey embarked on a trip to Washington D.C., where he visited the Udvar-Hazy Center National Air and Space Museum. The Center is home to thousands of historical aviation and space artifacts, including a Republic P-47 Thunderbolt World War II-era fighter aircraft. It was just like the “obsolete” aircraft Harvey remembered leading his team to victory in during the gunnery meet!

During his time in Washington D.C., Harvey was greeted by top USAF generals and commanders. In front of a private audience at the Air, Space, and Cyber Conference, he received the team’s plaque to honor the 332nd’s historic win.

Then on January 11, 2022, Harvey returned to Nellis Air Force Base for another special ceremony. Commander of Air Combat Command, Gen. Mark D. Kelly hosted the unveiling of the plaque that reaffirms the 332nd Fighter Group’s “Top Gun” victory in 1949. This plaque would permanently reside at the United States Air Force Weapons School to motivate and remind all students not to allow anything to hold them back.

After the ceremony, Harvey reflected on his experience in a statement released by the Air Force.

“We weren’t supposed to be able to fly aircraft, we weren’t supposed to be able to win this competition, but we did and we were the best,” he said. “Mission accomplished.”

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Lt. Col. Harvey and the 332nd Fighter Group are Honored for 1949 “Top Gun” Win

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