This post is a bit lengthy and if you’d rather just scroll through to see the photos then go ahead – but – there just might be some interesting stuff typed out in between! This thread took a good amount of research, typing, editing, and of course then there was the scanning of documents and taking of photos.
Lemuel Rodney Custis was born on June 4, 1915 in Wethersfield, Connecticut to Mary C. Goodwin Custis and Charles Custis. In 1938 Custis graduated from Howard University with a bachelor’s degree of science. He became Hartford’s first African-American police officer in 1939, and worked a regular beat on the night shift. At the outbreak of WWII, and unbeknownst to the people on his beat, he enlisted in the Army, and many of them wondered why he had suddenly disappeared, or if “the man” had found a way to get rid of him. On March 7, 1942, Custis graduated from Class 42-C at Tuskegee Army Airfield, AL. A photograph of the graduating class was printed in the Pittsburgh Courier, a newspaper that primarily served African-Americans. This paper was also circulated in CT, and when people on his old police beat saw his photo, their minds were set at ease.
The first graduating class was only five pilots from thirteen cadets: George Roberts; Benjamin O. Davis Jr.; Charles DeBow; Mac Ross; and Lemuel Rodney Custis. These pilots, and others who later graduated in the program, became known as “Tuskegee Airmen.”
Custis was assigned to the segregated and all-black 99th Fighter Squadron, which flew escort and patrol missions in Curtiss P-40 Warhawks in North Africa, Sicily and Italy from April 1943 to July 1944.
The first victory with one of the 99th shooting down an enemy aircraft happened on July 2, 1943, and was credited to 1st Lt Charles B. Hall after he downed a Focke-Wulf 190 near Castelvetrano Airfield in southwestern Sicily, Italy.
The next air battle the Airmen were involved in was several months later, located off the coast of Anzio, on January 27th, 1944, when Cpt Lemuel Custis received credit for downing 1 of 10 enemy Focke-Wulf 190s that were destroyed by his squadron that day.
The 9 other members of the 99th Fighter Squadron who also downed enemy aircraft that day were 2nd Lt Clarence W. Allen (0.5 FW-190); 1st Lt Willie Ashley Jr. (1 FW-190); 2nd Lt Charles P. Bailey (1 FW-190); 1st Lt Howard Baugh (1.5 FW-190); 1 Lt Robert W. Deiz (1 FW-190); 2nd Lt Wilson V. Eagleson (1 FW-190); 1st Lt Leon C. Roberts (1 FW-190); 2nd Lt Lewis C. Smith (1 FW-190); 1st Lt Edward L. Toppins (1 FW-190).
Custis knew that he and his squadron had done something special that day, but it would take many years before they would receive a high level of praise for their actions. Later in the war Custis would be credited with two additional probable kills.
Custis became the Operations Officer of the 99th—essentially number-two in command—and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal with oak leaf clusters for his bravery. In 1944, considering his combat record and talent, he was sent back to Tuskegee, AL as an advanced flight instructor. He demobilized in 1946, having attained the rank of Major.
“After our success at Anzio and Salerno … we had an inkling that perhaps we had made a real contribution,” Custis said during an interview in April 2000. “And then, of course, as the years went by, and you got older and you had a better perspective of history and so forth, we could realize that we had really done something from a historical standpoint.”
Custis retired as the Chief Examiner, Tax Department for the State of Connecticut, after 30 years’ service in 1980. In 1995, he was a consultant for the HBO movie, “The Tuskegee Airmen” and served on the Board of Directors at the New England Air Museum in Windsor Locks, CT. His life achievements were recognized by Central Connecticut State University with an Honorary Doctorate of Humanities Degree in 2001.
Upon Custis’ death in 2005, Attorney Francis Farrelly, the Executor of Custis’ estate, located Custis’ issued Colt Model 1911 service pistol in his house in Wethersfield, CT, and contacted the local police department with questions about how he could dispose of the pistol as nobody wanted it. Pilots were typically issued either Model 1911 service pistols or a revolver for self-protection if they were shot down and or crashed in enemy territory. While these pistols were officially property of the US Government, many pilots kept their issued sidearms when demobilizing after the war; some were able to purchase the sidearm through their chain of command, while others managed to smuggle them home in their luggage.
After a discussion with Officer Cefaratti, where the military service of Custis was brought up, the attorney was informed that if Custis’ service pistol were “surrendered” to the department it would have to be destroyed, but if it were “donated” to the department then the historical significance of the pistol belonging to Custis would be preserved in whatever way the department chose. Preferring preservation over destruction, Farrelly made the decision to donate the pistol to the Wethersfield Police Department, which he did on July 11, 2005. As was customary for any firearm being turned over to the department, it was sent out to be “drug fired” and run through the COLLECT system, which came back with no hits. This meant the pistol had not previously been reported as stolen or used in a crime.
Being that the Wethersfield Police department had no use for a donated pistol to simply sit around gathering dust in the armory, the decision was soon made to sell it – this would allow the department to benefit from the donation as well as keep the pistol from being destroyed. The pistol was brought to Hoffman’s Guns in Newington, CT who established current market value of the pistol with a written offer to purchase it, which was not accepted by the Wethersfield Police representative. The pistol was then sold at market value to an officer within the Police Department who had heard of the Tuskegee Airmen. The pistol was transferred out to him through Newington Gun Exchange. This officer was my cousin. He immediately began researching the history of Lemuel R. Custis with the Tuskegee Airmen in his spare time.
Fast forward around 15 years or so, and my cousin offered the pistol to me along with a packet of his research, as I had expressed my interest in the pistol to him several years prior. Naturally, I could not pass up the opportunity to help preserve such a unique piece of both local CT history, greater American WW2 history, and acknowledge not just one but two steps that Maj Custis had taken in the desegregation of our wonderful country.
I continued the research where my cousin left off and began adding my own notes and photos as I found more information. I filed a FOIA request with the US Army for any records pertaining to the serial number, but they were unsuccessful in locating any documents. I received a Colt letter from their archives department which gave me the date and depot that the pistol was originally shipped to. In the fall of 2020, I came across an article published in 2018 which gave me a lead and pointed me to a good friend of Custis who was local to me in CT.
For a few months I debated whether it would be appropriate for me to give this gentleman a phone call regarding his deceased friend. It was only recently that I decided to write down some questions to ask and I picked up the phone. We talked about his good friend “Lem” at length for some time, and the stories that he shared with me were incredible. He was very excited to hear that Custis’ service pistol had not been lost forever, as he vividly remembered holding it in his own hands while Custis told him how he had kept it after the war. He told me that “Lem” never sought out publicity for his accomplishments, and that Custis was always low-key and had tremendous respect from friends and colleagues. When Custis was at reunions, parties, or events with other Tuskegee Airmen, they instantly deferred to him - he was somehow in charge regardless of rank. When things were serious, he was a no-nonsense kind of guy.
Custis’ friend has been a member of the Board of Directors for the New England Air Museum located in Windsor Locks, CT, since 1989, and he first met Custis when Custis joined the board in 1990. They instantly became friends. He has asked if I am willing to temporarily loan the pistol to his museum later this fall for a Veterans Day exhibit in the section featuring Custis and the Tuskegee Airmen.
If all goes well, this pistol will (albeit temporarily) be reunited with Custis’ flight jacket and on display in a showcase at the New England Air Museum in November 2022. Preserving and honoring historical treasures like this pistol are the exact reasons the police department encouraged its donation instead of its surrender.
Below is the service pistol of Maj. Lemuel Rodney Custis. It is a Colt Model 1911 Automatic Pistol, Serial No 4767XX. Manufactured in 1918, this pistol was part of a 10,500-piece shipment for the US Government, that was sent to Bush Terminal, in Brooklyn, NY, on October 11, 1918, according to Colt records.
While there are no available records detailing the military’s usage of this pistol during the first World War, much information may be gained from a close inspection of the pistol. The 1911s produced by Colt in the later stages of World War One were subjected to a different finishing process as well as fewer machining steps than those in earlier production. These changes allowed Colt to manufacture the in-demand pistols at a higher rate, but also resulted in a notably darker finish. These pistols became known as the “Black Army” pistols since they appeared black compared to the earlier “blued” finish.
This pistol was sandblasted and re-blued at some point after WWI, as the original “Black Army” finish was not nearly as durable as the bluing applied to pistols earlier in the war. It was also outfitted with a post-WWI barrel marked “S P” at the same time based upon wear patterns that are consistent between the barrel, slide, and frame. This barrel is often referred to a “field replacement.”
While not immediately obvious, the slide was also replaced at the same time (again evidenced from wear patterns) with a slide from an earlier model Colt. The earlier slide is noticed when compared to other Colt slides that were manufactured in 1918 due to the front stirrup cuts having a slightly different contour and the location of the rampant colt roll-mark being located at the rear of the slide instead of the middle.
Also of note is that the barrel link is worn out and therefore oversized, allowing the slide to sit slightly further forward on the frame than it should. The safety, trigger, hammer, and magazine release still retain much of their lustrous blue finish. The significant wear on the slide, barrel, frame, and grips makes it obvious that this pistol was shot extensively in its past.
The original proof and inspection stamps are visible on the frame by the mag release (Eagle head), trigger guard (68), disconnector (G), and the appropriate "H" on the back of the slide above the firing pin hole, etc. When pistols were rebuilt by any of the major armories, such as Augusta, Anniston, Springfield, etc., they would stamp the frame with an abbreviation unique to that location. This pistol has none of the arsenal rebuild stamps, so it is highly likely that it was refinished at the unit level instead of arsenal level.
I find it interesting that one of the infamous Colt “Black Army” 1911 pistols eventually found its way into the hands of the Tuskegee Airmen, the first black pilots in the Army Air Force.
This pistol remains in the exact same configuration as when it was owned by Maj Custis, i.e., the grips, trigger, safety, hammer, barrel, etc. have not been changed.
Part of the impetus for this post was that Maj Custis passed away during the month of February, which happens to be Black History Month. Today, February 24, marks the 17th anniversary of his death.
Lemuel Rodney Custis
1915- February 24, 2005
Unit: 99th Fighter Squadron