In honor of Black History Month, The Dennis Farm Charitable Land Trust celebrates the life of Lieutenant Colonel James H. Harvey III, decorated Tuskegee Airman and the United States Air Force’s (USAF) first ever “Top Gun.”
Born in New Jersey in 1923, Harvey’s family moved to Wilkes-Barre in 1930 and in 1936, to Nuangola Station in Mountain Top, Pennsylvania where they were the only African American family. Harvey was President of his class, captain of the basketball team, and valedictorian when he graduated from Fairview High School.
After entering the military in 1943, Harvey graduated from Tuskegee’s Flight program in 1944, earning his wings and a commission as a Second Lieutenant in the 332nd Fighter Group, the legendary Tuskegee Airman, the all African American United States Air Force pilots, during World War II.
In 1950, First Lieutenant Harvey became the first African American jet fighter pilot in the Korean War, flying 126 missions. For his outstanding service on a mission October 16, 1950, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, one of more than ten medals and awards he received during his long, distinguished military career.
One of his proudest achievements took place between World War II and the Korean War. In 1949, the USAF held the first, the inaugural Gunnery or “Top Gun” competition, in Nevada. Each Air Force Fighter Group was ordered to send a three-man team of their top scoring pilots to compete in the contest. Harvey was one of the three pilots who represented the 332nd Fighter Group Weapons and they were the only African American team. Harvey remembers that his commanding officer, Col. Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., advised them, “If you don’t win, don’t come back.” The rigorous competition lasted ten days and had seven different events. Harvey and his teammates lead throughout the entire competition, “from start to finish,” flying P-47N Thunderbolts, culminating in a decisive win.
Sadly, for the next 46 years, the 332nd Fighter Group’s achievement in the first “Top Gun” competition was hidden from the public. Each year until 1995, when the winners for every year’s competition were listed, the winning team of the USAF’s first “Top Gun” competition was identified in Air Force publications as “Unknown.” Finally, in 1995, interested parties unearthed the competition records and Harvey and his teammates were finally acknowledged for their 1949 achievement. Their trophy, a three-feet tall, silver trophy, had also been “lost,” but an intrepid woman historian from Atlanta tracked it down to a storage facility for the Wright Patterson Air Force Museum in Ohio. When she asked why the trophy wasn’t on display, she was told it would “never” be on display, but that soon changed. The 332nd’s trophy is proudly on display in the Air Force Museum with the names of the winning pilot team.
“Lt. Colonel Harvey left Northeast Pennsylvania before I was born,” said DFCLT President Denise Dennis, “but our families were friends and I remember spending time at the Harvey’s home in Nuangola when I was growing up. They had a pond with ducks in the backyard. His youngest sister, Connie, was my late aunt, Deedee’s, best and lifelong friend. I remember my mother telling me that Connie’s brother was a Tuskegee Airman, but I was too young to appreciate the significance. Recently, I began to think about him and did some research,” Dennis said. “I was thrilled by what I discovered.”
Lt. Col. Harvey retired from the military in 1965, and followed that success with a successful career in the corporate world, at Oscar Mayer, which eventually led him to Denver, Colorado where he still lives. He retired from Oscar Mayer in 1980.
Fortunately since 1995, Lt. Colonel Harvey, one of the last Tuskegee Airmen who is still with us, has been recognized and honored by a grateful nation. In 2006, he and his fellow Tuskegee Airmen were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal. In 2019, he returned home, hosted by the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton International Airport in Avoca. As a part of his four-day trip, a police escort accompanied him to the American Legion Post in Mountain Top for a dinner celebrating his life–Northeast Pennsylvania’s favorite son, a true American hero, Lt. Col. James H. Harvey, III.