HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - For their heroics during World War II, the Tuskegee Airmen became one of America's most-decorated fighting units.
The U.S. Army Air Corps fighter and bomber pilots were all African-Americans put into service to fight Adolf Hitler's Nazi regime.
"We were given the opportunity of advancing this country. We took it upon ourselves to take it. We did it," said retired Lt. Col. Alexander Jefferson, who visiting the islands this month.
in the 1940s, the military resisted using black men as fighter pilots, but a special segregated unit was created and trained at Tuskegee Army Airfield in Alabama. Jefferson enlisted in 1943 and became a fighter pilot, one of about 1,000 Tuskegee Airmen.
"I wanted to go first-class and to serve my country the best way I could," he said.
The squadron was known at the Red Tails because the tail section of their aircraft was painted red for easy identification when they were in the air.
In 1944, during a strafing run over southern France Jefferson's airplane was hit by German ground fire.
"At about 200 feet -- boom! The darn shell came up through the floor and I had to pull out," he said.
He parachuted to the ground but was captured and imprisoned in a POW camp.
Jefferson was one of 32 Tuskegee pilots captured by the enemy. He said they were the lucky ones.
"We left some guys in the soil of France, in the soil of Germany," he said.
When Gen. George Patton liberated the prison camp he was in, Jefferson saw firsthand the atrocities at one of Hitler's concentration camps.
"I saw Dachau two days after the American's liberated it. It was horrible," he said.
Jefferson returned to the U.S. to racism, segregation and discrimination.
"Walking down the gang plank in New York, flags waving, all the tooting going on," he recalled. "At the bottom of the gang plank white soldiers said, 'Whites to the right. N*****s to the left.'"
Jefferson was stationed at Tuskegee as a pilot trainer. He retired from the Air Force in 1969 then taught science to elementary school students in his hometown of Detroit until he retired in 1980.
At, 96, Jefferson is one of only about 18 Tuskegee Airmen still alive.