Tuskegee Airmen

December 12, 2018

“They said we didn’t have the intelligence, demeanor, the courage to be combat pilots. They learned different. All we needed was a chance and training.”
Col. Charles E. McGee, Pilot, c. 2005

The “Tuskegee Experiment” was meant to fail. The US government specifically stated the blacks were NOT mentally and physically capable of flying airplanes. I don’t know why they did the “experiment” at all but boy were they proved wrong. Young black men volunteered to do whatever needed to be done to get them into an airplane. They trained longer and harder and had stricter pass/fail requirements than their white counterparts. They did not train together with white pilots but had their own hangers and field away from the white airbase. Their book learning was at Tuskegee Institute (a black college) but their “basic” pilot training was at Moton Field. The National Park Service has two hangers with excellent interpretive exhibits about the Tuskegee Airman. Their video is inspiring and many stations in the museum allow you to hear the voices of the actual airmen (some are still alive… seriously “mature” but alive). The video recordings are great. They tell about the hardships and racism that they encountered but they also let you see the pilots’ eyes light up when they talk about what it meant to fly and defend their country. These were fly boys. Black or white didn’t matter to them. They loved what they did and their excitement and pride comes through. At some point they painted the tails of their planes red and earned the nickname “Red Tails”. The “Red Tails” became known for their ability to safely bring the bombers home and were requested by many squadrons to provide escort duty for them.

Another thing I learned is that the Tuskegee Airmen were not just pilots. This term includes EVERYONE that worked in the unit. AND it includes women. Yes, they trained black women to be airplane mechanics and perform other jobs as the support crew of the unit. All members of the military unit were black except the commanding officer. The government screwed up putting that man in charge because he intended to make the “experiment” successful…and he did. If they wanted it to fail, they should have chosen someone else.

We can’t carry a lot of extraneous “stuff” in our motor home but we felt compelled to pick up a stuffed bear in the gift shop. It is a fuzzy little black bear with aviator jacket, helmet and goggles and a scarf that says “Tuskegee Airmen”. In keeping with the “Amelia Bearheart” that Chloe got in Dayton, we are calling him “Tuskegee Bearman.” He and Amelia will be great friends.

For John’s historical info, read on…

Hangar 1

The Tuskegee Airmen faced death every day while fighting for the Allies in Europe during World War II. They also had to face intense racial discrimination and segregation at home. Fighting for freedom while being denied freedom sounds like something out of George Orwell’s 1984. Yet, they persevered.

Jim Crow, a system of racial segregation, was the rule throughout the United States, and especially in the old Confederate states, beginning in the late 1870s and continuing well into the 1960s. The US military reflected those policies. However, before the US entered World War II the Army Air Corps, responding to pressure from the NAACP, created the 99th Pursuit Squadron (later called the 99th Fighter Squadron) as a segregated unit.

In early 1941, Tuskegee Institute was selected as the sole primary flight school for black aviators. Basic flight training occurred at the nearby Moton Field. Why in the Deep South? One reason was weather. Another was the presence of the Tuskegee Institute, one of the premier black colleges. Pilot trainees lived and attended ground school there.

PT-17 Kaydet Training aircraft

But it takes more than a pilot and plane to make an air force. You also need men and women with other specialized skills such as aircraft maintenance mechanics, weapons specialists, radio operators, intelligence officers, meteorologists, flight controllers, parachute riggers, records keepers, office workers, facility maintenance personnel, medical personnel, etc.

The first combat-ready unit was the 99th Pursuit Squadron. They were deployed to North Africa and made part of the 33rd Fighter Group.

The 99th Fighter Squadron, commanded by Lt. Col. Benjamin O. Davis, headed for North Africa in April 1943. They were attached to a white fighter group commanded by Col. William Momyer.

The squadron initially flew P-40 Warhawks and supported ground troops in North Africa.

Col. William Momyer denigrated the 99th‘s performance and tried to prevent any more black units from being deployed. Lt. Col. Davis ardently defended their record and convinced the chief of the Army Air Forces to deploy additional black squadrons.

Eventually, enough pilots, ground crew, and support staff were trained to form the 332nd Fighter Group consisting of the 99th, 100th, 301st, and 302nd Fighter Squadrons. The pilots, ground crew, and support staff collectively became known as the Tuskegee Airmen.

In 1944, the 332nd Fighter Group deployed to Italy. The group was eventually outfitted with P-51 Mustangs, the best fighter plane produced in World War II. Their aircrafts’ tails, wing tips, and propeller nose cones were painted bright red, which earned the Tuskegee Airmen the moniker Red Tails.

P-51 Mustang with Red Tail coloring

The war record of the Tuskegee Airmen was impressive. They shot down or damaged 137 enemy aircraft in the air and destroyed or damaged 273 aircraft on the ground. They even managed to severely damage an enemy destroyer. Their record in protecting bombers is even more impressive. Not one bomber they were assigned to protect was ever shot down by an enemy aircraft. Not one.

During the war, the Tuskegee Airmen supported the Twelfth and Fifteenth Air Forces, flew over 1,500 missions, and over 15,500 combat sorties.

The Airmen suffered their share of casualties – 66 pilots killed in action, 13 reported missing in action, and 32 shot down and taken prisoner.

They also racked up numerous awards including 95 Distinguished Flying Crosses, 14 Bronze Stars, 774 Air Medals and Clusters, and 5 Distinguished Unit Citations.

Fascism is an ideology that promotes national strength through ethnic or racial purity (e.g., Nazism). Racism promotes the belief that one race is superior to another (e.g., white supremacy). In the fight against Nazi Germany, Churchill began to use the V for Victory hand sign. The Tuskegee Airmen used a double V hand sign – one for victory against fascism and the other for victory against racism. The Tuskegee Airmen were fighting a war on two fronts – at home against racism and abroad against Fascism.

Everywhere they went, the Tuskegee Airmen encountered racism and segregation. At Walterboro Army Airfield in South Carolina, they were denied access to facilities that German POWs were permitted to enter. Think about that. Prisoners of war were treated better than our own soldiers…because they were white.

Hangar 2 and Control Tower

Toward the end of the war bomber crews were trained and formed the 477th Bombardment Group consisting of the 616th, 617th, 618th and 619th Bombardment Squadrons. This group was never deployed overseas.

Some of the worst racism was endured by the 447th Bombardment Group at Freeman Field, Indiana. Their commander, Col. Robert Selway established two officers’ clubs – one for “supervisory” officers and another for “trainees” officers. It just so happened that all black officers were designated as trainees while all white officers were designated as supervisors. 477th officers were offended and some attempted to enter the all-white officers’ club. They were denied entry, arrested, and confined to quarters. Col. Selway drafted Base Regulation 85-2 that all base officers had to read and sign. The regulation stated that the officer was either a “supervisor” or “trainee” and was allowed to use only the assigned facilities. 101 officers of the 447th refused to sign the regulation. These men were transferred to Godman Field where officials tried to charge them with mutiny – punishable by death in wartime.

With support from the African American community, political pressure, and legal assistance the officers were released and given letters of reprimand. Col. Selway was relieved of command (but NOT court martialed!)

Unlike white soldiers, sailors, and airmen, Tuskegee Airmen were not welcomed home like conquering heroes. After their boat docked in New York a Tuskegee Airmen pilot walked down the gangplank and, at the bottom, encountered a soldier that said, “Whites to the right, niggers to the left.” Welcome home.

Fortunately, the end of segregation in the military, if not the nation, was in sight. In 1948, President Truman signed Executive Order 9981 that stated “there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion or national origin.”

As a testament to their professionalism and skill, the 332nd participated in the first US Air Force Gunnery Competition (also known as “Top Gun”) and won Top Team Honors.

The 332nd Fighter Group remained segregated until it was deactivated in 1949. The Tuskegee Airmen were then reassigned to other units by the US Air Force. The 332nd has been reactivated (fully desegregated) and inactivated several times over the years as our military needs changed but on November 16, 2014 the 332nd was reactivated again and serves today. They wear the emblem of the Tuskegee Airmen with pride.

H & J

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