Since February has been designated as Black History month, I thought it appropriate to publish a series of blogs featuring outstanding contributions by African Americans. This blog features the Tuskegee Airmen.
AAs have fought with distinction in every war beginning with the Revolutionary War. In fact, the first colonist to be killed in battle is generally acknowledged to have been an AA, Crispus Attucks, who was slain during the Boston Massacre on March 5, 1770. Ironically, during the RW AAs fought side-by-side with whites, so technically the American Army was integrated before it was segregated. Moreover, although some AAs fought on the side of the British due to promises of freedom most of them resisted that siren song and remained loyal to the colonies.
At the advent of WWII the military, like much of Americana, was segregated. Racial discrimination was a way of life. It may be incomprehensible to us now, especially the younger among us, but AAs were generally perceived by white America as inferior and not suitable for serving in certain capacities, such as piloting airplanes. This view was fostered and supported by a study by the Army War College in 1925. Moreover, AAs were required to live, train and fight separately from whites, and their units were under the command of white officers. (Ironically, although AAs were required to sit in a separate area in the back of a bus they were required to sit in the front passenger section of trains. The reason was that the steam locomotives of the day belched copious amounts of soot and ash, which made riding uncomfortable in the forward seating areas, particularly during the warm weather when windows were open.)
In spite of the foregoing, a group of AAs had the desire to pilot airplanes. Between 1941 and 1946 some 3,000 of them trained at the Tuskegee Institute, which was located in Tuskegee, Alabama. The Tuskegee Airmen became the first AAs to qualify as pilots. Up to then there had not been any AA pilots in the US. Their ambitious goal was to qualify as pilots and fight for their country. They became known as the Tuskegee Airmen. The program was initiated and supported by the FDR Administration, which reasoned that with the likelihood of a war the country would require the services of ALL Americans. About 1,000 of that original group survived the rigorous training program and ultimately graduated. By the time the program was concluded some 14,000 pilots and support personnel had been trained. In addition to the rigorous training, they had to endure the aforementioned discrimination and preconceptions of inferiority among Army personnel.
The program received a significant public relations boost from the First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt. In 1941 she famously flew with an AA flight instructor, C. Alfred Anderson. Upon landing safely she proclaimed to him “well, you can fly, all right.”
Initially, Tuskegee graduates were afforded very little respect by the powers-that-be. Typically, they were deployed to North Africa rather than Europe and designated to fly the more obsolete equipment. Later, they were permitted to fly the more advanced fighters, such as P51 Mustangs. At first, they were tasked with escorting bombers, which was generally perceived to be less risky than flying sorties. Whether by accident or design, most of the bombing crews were unaware that they were being protected by AA crews. There were some losses, but Army records disclosed that their “protection rate” was as good as that of white pilots. The TAs became known as “Red Tails” owing to their habit of painting the tail sections of their planes red.
The Army carefully restricted where the TAs were assigned and what they were permitted to do. For instance, as I said, at first, they were discouraged from directly engaging the enemy in “dogfights,” but eventually they did so and with distinction. Tuskegee Airmen recorded 112 confirmed kills. Eighty-four TAs were killed in battle, and 30 others were captured. In addition, they were permitted to bomb the Japanese but not white Europeans. Apparently, the Army was more concerned with offending the sensibilities of the Nazis and fascists than with its own people.
The TA pilots served with distinction, and, as a result, paved the way for all people of color who would follow. Many historians credit them, in part, for the US’s integrating the Armed Services, which President Truman mandated by Executive Order in 1948.
Some of their accomplishment were:
- Flying 1,578 combat missions.
- Flying 179 bomber escort missions.
- Destroying 112 enemy aircraft.
- Earning various medals, including one Silver Star, 96 Distinguished Flying Crosses, 14 Bronze Stars , 744 Air Medals and eight Purple Hearts.
- Collectively, being awarded a Congressional Gold Medal.
- Four have become generals, and many others have gone on to be successful in other endeavors.
Despite this stellar record of accomplishments old habits die hard, and the TAs continued to bear the brunt of racism and discrimination for years afterward. Today, many consider the US military to be the ultimate meritocracy. I believe that is due, in no small part, to the achievements of the Tuskegee Airmen.