17:37 PM

Haitian Heritage Month Heroes: Raymond Cassagnol (1920 – present)

Raymond Cassagnol, born September 20, 1920, is a former Haitian Air Force officer/flight instructor, one of the first Haitian Tuskegee Airmen, and Haiti's first-ever World War II-trained combat fighter pilot. Now a centenarian, Cassagnol is the last surviving Haitian Tuskegee Airmen. He is also the author of the 2004 autobiography "Mémoires d’un Révolutionaire" (Revolutionary Memoirs).  

In 1942, the United States military bequeathed to Haiti six armed Douglas O-38E observation planes to patrol the Caribbean Sea for Nazi German submarines regularly surfacing around Haiti. Soon after, Haiti built the Bowen Field airstrip in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Though Haiti commissioned officers to fly these observation planes, all lacked formal flight training, leading to unnecessary aircraft accidents and wreckage.

As a result, the Haitian government published a newspaper ad in July 1942 seeking 40 airmen recruits for the Haitian Army. The ad caused pandemonium in Port-Au-Prince on official selection day, attracting 800 frenzied airmen candidates and their families. The recruiters selected 42 candidates, including Cassagnol. One reason for his selection was that he spoke four languages: French, Spanish, Creole, and English.

By 1943, Cassagnol became a sergeant and an aircraft mechanic within the maintenance department of the newly formed Haitian Air Force or Corps d’Aviation, created by then-Haitian President Elie Lescot in 1942. He regularly worked on Haiti's aircraft even after duty hours. Considered a high performer, Cassagnol attracted the attention of pilot Dean Eshelman, provisional chief of Haiti's air squadron. One evening, Eshelman visited Bowen Airfield and noticed Cassagnol working overtime. When they asked him why he was working overtime, Cassagnol responded: "There is nothing else to do."

Intrigued, Eshelman asked Cassagnol if he would be interested in becoming a pilot. The following week, the U.S. Embassy selected three Haitians for combat flight training at the Tuskegee Army Airfield in Tuskegee, Alabama: Cassagnol, Philippe Celestin, and Alix Pasquet. In February 1943, the Haitian government sent the men aboard a DC-3 Skytrain aircraft to the U.S., traveling through Puerto Rico, Miami, and Jacksonville, Florida. They collectively became the first Haitians in history to train as combat fighter pilots.

Unaccustomed to Jim Crow segregation as a privileged Haitian citizen, Cassagnol made every effort to avoid leaving the Tuskegee Army Training Field campus, to avoid the humiliation of racial segregation and white southern hostilities. Nonetheless, Cassagnol became fast friends and roommates with fellow aviation classmate Daniel James Jr., who would become the U.S.'s first African American four-star general.

On July 28, 1943, Cassagnol graduated as a member of the Single Engine Section Cadet Class SE-43-G, earning his silver wings and subsequent promotion as a second lieutenant in the Haitian Air Force. A Tuskegee newspaper published an article describing Cassagnol and his two fellow Haitian pilots as a "Triple threat to the Axis.”

After graduation, Cassagnol returned to Haiti to serve in the newly formed Haitian Air Force, becoming its primary flight instructor for Haiti's wartime pilot training program. Flying North American AT-6 Texans, Cassagnol logged over 100 hours of flight time patrolling the island of Hispanola, defending against Nazi Germany's frequent, at-will submarine incursions in the area. Without the use of radar, Cassagnol and his team successfully nullified the Nazi German submarines, forcing the Germans to discontinue their incursion.

After a military overthrow of President Lescot in 1946, Cassagnol resigned from the Haitian military in April 1946. However, General Franck Lavaud denied Cassagnol's resignation on the grounds that the Haitian public and Haiti's enemies could perceive Cassagnol's resignation as evidence of a rift in the Haitian armed forces. Nonetheless, in July 1946, Cassagnol submitted his resignation again and the military accepted it.

During Haiti President Paul Magloire's administration (1950 - 1956), Cassagnol objected to Magloire and his political favoritism. When Haiti held its presidential election in 1957, a non-partisan Cassagnol objected to presidential candidate Clement Jumelle, viewing him as a continuation of Paul Magloire’s corrupt politics. Cassagnol also became a fierce opponent of François Duvalier after he won the Haitian presidency and began to systematically target and kill his political enemies.

In 1961, Cassagnol met with Dominican General Rafael Leónidas Trujillo to devise plans to overthrow Duvalier. Cassagnol later discovered that General Trujillo unfortunately had informed Duvalier three years earlier that Trujillo had given armaments to Cassagnol and former Haitian senator Louis Dejoie, another Duvalier opponent. Fearing for his life, Cassagnol and his family fled Haiti in 1962, entering the Dominican Republic as political asylees. After his arrival in the Dominican Republic, he continued to engage in anti-Duvalier efforts.

In May 1969, Cassagnol flew a B-25 over Duvalier's National palace and bombed it, but Duvalier survived. Duvalier later died of heart disease and diabetes in 1971 and was succeeded by his 19-year-old son Jean-Claude as president. Cassagnol and his family later emigrated to the U.S. In 1986 after Jean-Claude Duvalier was deposed from power, Cassagnol returned to Haiti after 17 years away from his native land. In 1999, Cassagnol deeded 200 acres of land he owned in Haiti to a charitable organization. In November 2000, at the age of 81, Cassagnol visited Tuskegee University after a 57-year absence. After living in Orlando, Florida for 20 years, Cassagnol now resides in Mobile, Alabama.