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The Tuskegee Airmen
At the time of World War II, an official policy of racial segregation was the norm in the United States in general and the U.S. Army in particular. African-Americans were limited to specific, separate military units, where they servec under white officers, generally in service occupations like truck drivers, mess attendants, stevedores, and quartermasters. Combat roles were denied to them, on an ill-conceived notion that the "colored" could not handle such work.
Civil rights organizations and the African-American newspapers exerted pressure on President Roosevelt and Congress to change the rules and allow black Americans make the same contribution to the war effort as whites. This pressure and intense manpower shortages led to several "experiments" to see if blacks could take on some of the roles formerly denied them. The best-remembered, most-successful of the experiments became the Tuskegee Airmen.
Origins of the Tuskegee Airmen
The pre-World War II U.S. Army was a racist institution, with prejudice deeply ingrained. Although American blacks served well in World War I, official attitudes remained fixed on segregation and limited roles. An October 1925 report by the Army War College titled "The Use of Negro Manpower in War" reflected prevailing attitudes. The report concluded that the Negro man was immoral, mentally inferior to whites, profoundly superstitious, had less capacity for learning, and was a coward in darkness. These views were widely held by officers to the highest levels of command. Even officers with more open minds were unlikely to risk their career for "the advancement of colored people" nor were they ready to deal with problems that would ensue if African-American enlisted men were mixed with whites. Only a few units of black troops existed, mostly support units separated from the military mainstream.
But as World War II approached in 1939, the pressure of mobilization and massive manpower requirements resulted in the Roosevelt administration and Congress passing two laws:
Therefore, in the fall of 1939, the Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP) established several Negro flight schools in accordance with PL18 and permitted some blacks to train in integrated northern flying schools. Confounding expectations, blacks in this program did as well as white attendees. The military continued to resist, however, taking the position that Congress did not require them to employ blacks, but simply to establish the schools and train them. Since there had been no provisions made to create Negro Air Corps squadrons, blacks could not enlist because there were no units to which they could be assigned. Illustrating the lack of progress, in mid-1940 General Henry "Hap" Arnold, Chief of the Army Air Corps, said:
Negro pilots cannot be used in our present Air Corps units since this would result in having Negro officers serving over white enlisted men, creating an impossible social problem.
Changes finally began to occur when President Roosevelt, seeking reelection in 1940, promised to establish black flying units in an attempt to revitalize support among black voters. Early in 1941, the Roosevelt administration, under increasing public pressure for greater black participation in the military as war approached, ordered the War Department to create a black flying unit. In March 1941, the Air Corps established the all-black 99th Pursuit Squadron, their attempt to meet the formal requirement while avoiding integration and deployment of black pilot graduates into white Air Corps squadrons.
The Tuskegee Airmen Training Program
On 19 July 1941, the Army Air Corps began a program to train black Americans as pilots for the first time. The primary flight training for these African-American cadets took place at the Division of Aeronautics of Tuskegee Institute, a small black college in Alabama. Under the so-called "Tuskegee Experiment" Air Corps officials built Moton Field, a separate facility to train the pilots. After pilot cadets passed primary flight training at Moton Field, they transferred to Tuskegee Army Air Field (TAAF) to complete their training with the Army Air Corps. They became known as the "Tuskegee Airmen," a designation that eventually included pilots, navigators, bombardiers, maintenance and support staff, instructors, and all the personnel who kept the planes in the air.
After completing the standard Army flight classroom instruction and the required hours of flight time, on 7 March 1942 George Roberts, Benjamin O. Davis Jr., Charles BeBow Jr., Mac Ross and Lemuel Custis received the silver wings of Army Air Force pilots, the first blacks to qualify as military pilots in any branch of the U.S. armed forces.
Captain Davis, a West Point graduate (the fourth in history), was the first black officer to solo an Army Air Corps aircraft. In July 1942, after promotion to Lt. Colonel, he was named commander of the 99th Pursuit Squadron, formerly commanded by white officers. Davis later commanded the successor all black 332d Fighter Group and went on to become the first African-American general in the United States Air Force.
By the end of World War II, 992 men had graduated from pilot training at Tuskegee. Of the graduates, 450 were sent overseas for combat assignment. About 150 lost their lives while in training or on combat flights. For the Tuskegee Experiment as a whole, more than 15,000 men and women participated from 1942 through 1946, as pilots and all other service occupations.
The Tuskegee Airmen in Combat
The 99th Pursuit Squadron, equipped with P-40 Tomahawk fighters, was sent to Tunisia in North Africa in the spring of 1943. On 2 June, they first experienced combat in a dive-bombing mission against the German-held island of Pantelleria. The 99th later supported Operation Husky, the Allied invasion of Sicily.
In September of 1943, Lt. Col. Davis was called back to the United States to take command of the 332d Fighter Group, a larger all-black unit preparing to go overseas. Arriving in Italy in early 1944, the four-squadron 332d Fighter Group escorted bombers on air combat missions over Europe. On each mission, when escort duties were completed, they engaged targets of opportunity. The 332d, based at Ramitelli, Italy was called the "Red Tails" for the distinctive markings of its planes. They were credited with 109 Luftwaffe aircraft shot down and 273 more destroyed or damaged on the ground. They also managed to sink the German-operated Italian destroyer TA-23 (sunk by machine-gun fire, a rare feat), and destruction of enemy fuel dumps and transport. Lt. Col. Davis himself flew sixty missions in P-39 Airacobras, P-40 Warhawks, P-47 Thunderbolts and P-51 Mustang fighters. In all, the squadrons of the 332d Fighter Group flew more than 15,000 sorties on 1,500 missions in North Africa and the Mediterranean Theater. Only 66 of the Tuskegee Airman's planes were lost during missions over some of the toughest, best defended targets in the European war, including the Ploesti oil fields in Romania and the German capital, Berlin. Five Tuskegee Airmen became prisoners of the Germans after being shot down. The Tuskegee Airmen were called the "Schwartze Vogelmenschen," meaning "black birdmen" in German.
For many years after World War II, it was said that no bomber escorted by the 332d was lost in combat. This claim of a perfect record has become doubtful as new reviews of operational records, conducted by the Air Force in 2006, revealed contemporary reports of escorted aircraft lost. Even if the record of the Tuskegee Airmen was not perfect, it remains quite distinguished and the historical revision means little.
Honors Bestowed on the Tuskegee Airmen
The exemplary record of the Tuskegee Airmen was recognized, even during WW II. The Tuskegee Airmen's squadrons received Distinguished Unit Citations. Individual Airmen received numerous decorations for combat including the Purple Heart, Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal (with oak leaf clusters). Many of the pilots stayed in the Air Force, retiring at the rank of Lt. Col. or higher.
As time went on and the influence of discrimination faded, the Tuskegee Airmen were singled out for further recognition of their service and accomplishments. On 14 December 1998, Benjamin O. Davis Jr, the Tuskegee Airmens' commander who was retired as a Lt. General, received a fourth star (an honor sponsored in Congress by Senator John McCain, a Navy pilot.)
On 6 November 1998, President Clinton approved Public Law 105-355, which established the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site at Moton Field to commemorate and interpret the heroic actions of the Tuskegee Airmen during World War II.
An Act of Congress in 2006 (Public Law 109-213) created a Congressional Gold Medal to honor Tuskegee Airmen. The gold original stays on display in the Smithsonian Institution for display while 300 individual surviving airmen and their families received bronze replicas in a March 2007 ceremony in Washington, DC followed by other ceremonies throughout the US for those who could not come to Washington.
At the inauguration of Pres. Barak Obama, 20 January 2009, all the surviving Tuskegee Airmen were invited to sit in a place of honor on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol to see the first African-American sworn in as President.
The Tuskegee Airmen Fight Against Discrimination
They said blacks couldn't fly and that blacks wouldn't fight. The Tuskegee Experiment proved otherwise, but it took some time for the message to be received and understood. The Tuskegee Airmen not only fought the Axis during the war, but also fought against racism and segregation to prove they were just as good as any other pilot. Even after the Tuskegee Airmen proved their worth as military pilots beyond any doubt, they were still forced to operate in segregated units, not permitted to fight alongside their white countrymen. And following the war, the military remained segregated so these hero pilots could not have the benefits and respect that whites got automatically.
In late 1943, after the 99th Pursuit Squadron deployed to North Africa, there was an attempt to stop the use of black pilots in combat. With claims of poor performance, senior officers in the Army Air Corps recommended to General Marshall, the Army Chief of staff, that the 99th be removed from combat operations. Gen. Marshall ordered an inquiry but did not change the status of the 99th pending the committee's report. Lt. Col. Davis, infuriated by the unsubstantiated claims of poor performance, held a news conference to bring public attention to the matter. He presented his case to Marshall's War Department committee which eventually reported that the 99th's performance was comparable to other similar units staffed by whites. The 99th was kept in combat. Any questions about the squadron's fitness were answered in January 1944 when its pilots shot down twelve German planes in two days while protecting the Anzio beachhead.
Unlike the very successful all-black 99th Fighter Squadron and 332nd Fighter Group, the 477th Bombardment Group (Medium) was commanded by whites and was plagued with racial tensions. From its formation in January 1944 until the summer of 1945 when Col. Davis assumed command, white officers with no combat experience occupied all the key Squadron, Group, and Air Field flying and ground staff positions for captains and above. Black officers were denied advancement and promotions by the practice of continually rotating in new non-combat trained white pilot officers, most of whom had less flying hours in the B-25 Mitchell bombers than the black pilots they were training.
The extremely competent, proud, and qualified black personnel of the 477th were deeply disturbed by the blatant rigid segregationist policies and racial discrimination, along with many changes of station foisted on them by the leaders of the 477th during its brief history. Eventually the unacceptable situation led to a mutiny by 162 black officers at Freeman Field, IN, starting 5 April 1945. The focus of the mutiny was an Army Air Force officers club that refused to admit black officers, including combat veterans, a refusal that became symbolic of the widespread racist attitudes and practices. Faced with the courage of the black airmen, who were arrested on thin charges, the chain of command of the 477th began to crumble. After an investigation by the newly racially sensitive War Department, under outside pressure as the incident became public, all but three of the mutineers were freed. Of the last three, only one was convicted (for jostling a superior officer). Racism cost the Army Air Force the services of the 477th which never served in combat due to the lack of unit cohesion. In 1995, the USAF vindicated all the participants in the Freeman Field mutiny.
During World War II, 2.5 million black men registered for the draft. More than one million served in all branches of the armed forces along with thousands of African-American women who volunteered as combat nurses. The professionalism and distinguished success of the Tuskegee Airmen paved the way for other minorities in the military and helped bring all official racial segregation to an end. In July of 1948, President Truman signed Executive Order 9981 ordering the racial integration of the armed forces. Col. Davis helped draft the Air Force plan for implementing the order. The Air Force was the first of the services to integrate fully, largely based on the pioneering efforts of the Tuskegee Airmen.
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