Profile - James Lincoln Holt Peck, Spanish Civil War Ace, or Hustler
A controversial figure in aviation and military history, James Peck (1912-1996) claimed to have been the first African American to shoot down five aircraft in aerial combat, during the Spanish Civil War, at a time when the United States armed forces did not allow black Americans to fly, let alone participate in air combat.
Born in Pennsylvania, Peck came from a prominent local African American family from Stoops Ferry, northwest of Pittsburgh. As a child he would go and watch the aircraft flying out of Leetsdale airfield near his house. He later stated that the days he spent watching the aircraft flying from the field would be “where the flying bug bit me” at the age of nine. The family subsequently moved to Pittsburgh where Peck was a better than average student at Westinghouse and Peabody high schools. His marks enabled him to attend the University of Pittsburgh, but the “bug” got the better of him and he left after his sophomore year to enroll at the Curtiss-Wright flight school at Bettis Field, West Mifflin.
At the Curtiss-Wright school, Peck established a reputation as an excellent flyer but was warned by the school’s chief that despite his abilities he would not pass his flying test, as the federal flight examiner at the field did not believe that blacks should be allowed to fly. The school’s director advised Peck to transfer to the Cleveland Institute of Aeronautics, where he thought Peck would be assessed fairly on his ability. Peck agreed and secured his pilot’s license in Cleveland in 1930. Keen to explore his new career, Peck then applied to the U.S. Army Air Corps and the United States Navy, but was turned down due to his color. He spent the years 1931-1935 touring the country as a drummer with Alphonso Trent’s Victor Recording Orchestra, but returned to his passion for aviation in 1936, working as an elevator operator in New York to support his research on the subject. He also may have joined the Communist Party at this time.
Peck established a career as a fledgling aviation journalist, withhis first article published in Aero Digest in 1937. In August of that year he left for Spain to fly for the Republican forces against Franco’s Nationalists in the civil war of 1936-1939. It is during this period that the controversy over Peck’s career and actions arose. Peck, who was commissioned a lieutenant in the Republican Air Force, claimed that between August and December of 1937, he took part in seven air combats, forty convoy missions, five strafing attacks, and multiple attacks on shipping supplying the Nationalists whilst flying Russian I-15 Chato and I-16 Mosca fighters. As a result of these actions he would claim five kills over the Aragon front, two German-built He-51’s and three Italian CR-32’s and stated he was credited an additional half kill. If true, then his record would make Peck the first African American air combat ace. But there has been a great deal of criticism of Peck’s claim. Aviation historian Alan Herr states that sources concerning Peck’s record are unsubstantiated and contain numerous errors. Herr also repeated a comment by Republican pilot Jose “Chang” Seles Ogino that “James Peck’s service as a fighter pilot in Spain was utterly impossible.” In addition, the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archive records that Peck never flew in Spain and the American Fighter Aces Association does not recognize his claims. Spanish sources, such as Jesus Salas Larrazabal’s comprehensive
Air War Over Spain
also make no mention of Peck’s combats. Faced by questions over these discrepancies later in his life Peck “calmly reasserted his claim” and stated that flying combat was a minor episode in his life outweighed by his later accomplishments.
Returning from Spain in early 1938, Peck would go on to reinforce his reputation as an aviation journalist and an expert in the field, writing initially about his experiences in Spain for Sportsman Pilot and the New York Times Magazine, and features on aeronautical issues for Harpers, Science Digest, and Scientific American. He also wrote a number of articles calling for the inclusion of black pilots in the U.S. military and published his first book, Armies with Wings in 1940.
With America’s entry into the Second World War, Peck served in the Merchant Marine as an lieutenant and after his discharge in 1945 he became aviation correspondent for Popular Science magazine. He remained a journalist until 1959 when he went to work for Space Technology Laboratories (STL) – now part of TRW - at Cape Canaveral, making him “the first --and for three years the only -- black to serve at Cape Canaveral in any engineering capacity.” Peck would subsequently work on the Mercury and Gemini space missions and on classified satellite projects, a surprising career considering his links with the communist party earlier in his life and the persecurion that many other American veterans of the Spanish Civil War faced for their participation with the Republicans. In 1972 Peck went to work for North American on the B-1 bomber project. He retired from the aerospace industry in 1981.
So, did Peck lie about his aerial accomplishments in Spain? That’s hard to tell. The only evidence in his favor are his own statements on the matter. The stance of the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade that he never flew in Spain would seem to reject this. Certainly if he had done so, they would have touted his accomplishments to the skies as part of their well-orchestrated campaign to glorify themselves. So that would seem to confirm that Peck never flew in Spain. But there were volunteers for the Spanish Republic who did not belong to the so-called Abraham Lincoln Brigade, and so the VALB might not necessarily have been aware of his service. Or he may have served with the “Lincolns” in the International Brigades, and run afoul of the organization’s Stalinist leadership. An unknown number of volunteers were never heard from again after having crossed the leadership, and Peck may have been lucky enough just to get out alive.
James Lincoln Holt Peck died in California in 1996. Though his claims as a fighter pilot will most likely be forever disputed he was, without doubt, a remarkable man who achieved a great deal despite the obstacles he faced from the inherent racism in American society at that time.
Dan Shingleton has worked in a range of fields including as a journalist for The Handy Shipping Guide. He graduated from the University of Salford, England with a BA (Honours) in Contemporary Military and International History in 2008 and has travelled extensively throughout Asia, Southern Africa and Egypt. Shingleton lives in Southend, England, and is currently working on a book, American Adventurers and Soldiers-of-Fortune, 1824-1995.