Lee A Archer was born on September 6, 1919 in Yonkers and raised in New York’s Harlem district. He left New York University to enlist in the Air Corps in 1941 but, after rejection, trained in the infantry and then as a signaller. In December 1942 he was accepted for pilot training and left for Tuskegee. He graduated in July 1943, first in the order of merit, and was commissioned as a second lieutenant.
Archer was assigned to 302nd Fighter Squadron of 332nd Fighter Group, the USAAF’s first all-black unit, which had been formed amid great controversy in October 1942. The group moved to Italy early in February 1944 and soon began operations flying the Bell P-39 Airacobra on ground attack missions before converting to the P-51 Mustang, when their main role was to provide close escort to the USAAF’s heavy bomber forces. In their red-tailed Mustangs they developed a reputation as one of the war’s most effective fighter escort groups.
On July 18 1944 they flew their first escort for a large formation of B-24 bombers. When a fierce air battle ensued over southern Germany, eleven Messerschmitt Bf 109s were shot down, one by Archer. The long-range Mustangs were able to accompany the bombers all the way to the target and back, and the bomber pilots always felt safe once their “little friends” had joined the formation.
On October 22 1944 Archer took part in a sweep along the Danube. With his leader, he was attacking a Heinkel bomber when seven Messerschmitts appeared on the scene. In the ensuing battle, Archer shot down three of them, the last as it attempted to land.
Archer retired from the USAAF in 1970. He joined General Foods Corporation, becoming one of the era’s few black vice-presidents of major American companies. He was an adviser on the deal that created the conglomerate TLC Beatrice in 1987, then the largest black-owned and managed business in the US. After retiring from General Foods in 1987, he founded the venture capital firm Archer Asset Management.
Archer lived long enough to see the service of Tuskegee airmen fully, if belatedly, acknowledged. In March 2007, about 350 airmen and widows received the Congressional Gold Medal of Honour from President George W Bush at a ceremony in the US Capitol. The present-day 99th Flying Training Squadron’s aircraft are adorned with red tails in honour of the black airmen. Many streets and parklands bear their name, and in August 2008 the city of Atlanta officially renamed a portion of the state’s Route 6 in their honour.
Honoured by the American Fighter Pilots’ Association, Archer was described by a colleague as “extremely competent, sometimes stubborn but with a heart of gold. He treated people with respect and demanded respect by the way he carried himself.”