Lee A. Archer Jr., a pioneering black fighter pilot who was credited with shooting down four German planes, three in a single day, when he flew with the Tuskegee Airmen of World War II, died Jan. 27 in Manhattan. He was 90 and lived in New Rochelle, N.Y.
African American Legends: “Col. Lee Archer… Remembering a Legend”
For all his achievements as a military flier, Mr. Archer also forged a career in the business world as a prominent entrepreneur and investment manager.
As a combat pilot, he is best remembered for his exploits of Oct. 12, 1944, when he was in the midst of a furious series of dogfights over German-occupied Hungary. In a matter of minutes, flying a P-51 Mustang fighter with the distinctive red tail of the 332nd Fighter Group, known collectively as the Tuskegee Airmen, Lieutenant Archer shot down three German fighters.
At a time when the armed forces were segregated and the military brass was reluctant to give blacks combat responsibilities, the four squadrons of the Tuskegee unit proved time and time again that black pilots had the bravery and skills to escort American bombers to their targets and blow enemy planes out of the sky.
Lee Andrew Archer Jr. was born in Yonkers on Sept. 6, 1919. He became enthralled with aviation as a youngster in Harlem. Joining the Army out of New York University, hoping to become a pilot, he was assigned to a communications job at a post in Georgia because the Army did not want any black fliers. But when it began training black servicemen to fly at its Tuskegee airfield in Alabama, Mr. Archer joined the program and won his wings in the summer of 1943.
When he returned home in 1945, a recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross, he found that nothing seemed to have changed in American society.
“I flew 169 combat missions when most pilots were flying 50,” Mr. Archer told The Chicago Tribune in 2004. “When I came back to the U.S. and down that gangplank, there was a sign at the bottom: ‘Colored Troops to the Right, White Troops to the Left.’ ”
But he remained in the armed forces, which were desegregated by President Harry S. Truman in 1948, and retired as a lieutenant colonel in 1970.
In the business world, Mr. Archer worked at General Foods from 1970 to 1987, becoming chief executive of three of its investment arms, and in that role helped to finance dozens of companies, including Essence Communications and Black Enterprise magazine. He later founded the venture capital firm Archer Asset Management.
Mr. Archer ultimately maintained that he shot down five German planes — two on separate days in July 1944 in addition to the three in October 1944 — but said he had not been properly credited with one of those downings in July. Shooting down five planes would have brought him official designation as an ace, making him the only one among the Tuskegee Airmen.
In a 2008 review of wartime military records, Daniel L. Haulman of the Air Force Historical Research Agency found that Mr. Archer, while officially credited with four downings, was among the three leading Tuskegee pilots in shooting down enemy planes. His total was matched by Capt. Joseph D. Elsberry and Capt. Edward L. Toppins.
Mr. Archer is survived by his sons, Lee Archer III of Rome and Raymond and Roy, both of New Rochelle; a daughter, Ina, of Brooklyn; and four granddaughters. His wife, Ina, died in 1996.
In October 2005, Mr. Archer and two fellow Tuskegee veterans visited an air base at Balad, Iraq, to meet with 700 servicemen from a successor unit to his all-black outfit.
“This is the new Air Force,” he told The Associated Press. In the dining room, he said, he saw “black, white, Asian, Pacific Islanders, people from different parts of Europe.”
“This,” he said, “is what America is.”