World War II: The Tuskegee Airmen

By Camille Gipson

The movie, Tuskegee Airmen, tells of a time of inequality because of the color of people’s skin. Although discriminated against, these people felt compelled to fight for the country they loved, contradicting all predictions made by those who feared and disliked them. Even though many were highly educated, they were still thought of by White Americans as inferior. How could they serve their country? Where would they go to train? African-Americans had been fighting this battle long before a World War had ever begun. But this time, they would begin to make a difference.

On September 16, 1940, the Selective Training and Service Act passed, creating the draft. Every male between the ages of 18 and 35 was eligible for duty in the military for one year. One of the provisions stated, “In the selection and training of men under this Act, and in the interpretation and execution of the provisions of this Act, there shall be no discrimination against any person on account of race and color.” These were powerful words . . . on paper. However, the message did not hold in reality. White Americans were not willing to share facilities or anything else with their African-American counterparts. Not even the President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, wanted to be bothered with enforcing this Act. According to one source, “President Roosevelt’s idea to integrate the Navy was to put a Negro band on each ship - “the colored race is very musical,” one official pointed out. Government would make it seem as though things were happening only when select groups would get their feathers ruffled because few signs of progress were seen. The thought was that only a white man could be an “officer and the gentleman.” The pre-Pearl Harbor Army had only 4,450 Negro soldiers in six regimental-sized units. One of those units was based at Maxwell Field in Tuskegee, Alabama.

The Armed Forces were very slow in complying with a non-discriminatory draft. The army found many ways to stall the inevitable, and if they could have, they would have kept African-Americans out of the military all together. Using the excuse that there were no facilities for African Americans was one common tactic. In his memoir Charles Dryden tells of his experience after receiving his civilian pilot license. He decided he wanted to serve his country in that capacity. When he arrived at the recruiting office the sergeant stated, “The United States Army is not training any Colored pilots, so I can’t give you an application.”

During World War I, the Army War College (AWC) had conducted a study of Blacks. Alan M. Osur cites: “…it was held that the black man was physically unqualified for combat duty; was by nature subservient, mentally inferior, and believed himself to be inferior to the white man; was susceptible to the influence of crowd psychology; could not control himself in the face of danger; and did not have the initiative and resourcefulness of the white man.”

In the south especially, Black were looked at as being slow and docile. This was a mentality carried from the slavery days. Despite the Army’s studies held to justify why the military should not be integrated, African-Americans all over the country were graduating from colleges, starting their own businesses, and getting civilian pilots’ licenses. Everyone has a measure of self-worth and self-honor. With Jim Crow laws in effect, Black people had to literally walk on eggshells not to offend a white person for fear of being jailed, beaten or hanged. Charles Dryden talked about Jim Crow as if he was an actual person: “For once Jim Crow was speechless. That experience gave me a preview of a similar type of elitism laced with bigotry that I found in officers’ clubs later in my career.”

The NAACP was a strong voice in the African-American community. This organization was created to ensure equality for its people. It blasted the War Department in an article accusing the department of maintaining the old army pattern of segregation, and said that the custom of segregation “was the cause of most of the trouble experienced by African Americans in civilian as well as military life. Until segregation as a procedure is overthrown, the race will be hobbled in all its endeavors in every field.”

When Maxwell Field opened on January 16, 1941, it was strictly an experimental endeavor. The pilots selected had to be either college graduates or to have some college background. Even after arriving on the base, the cadets had to retake the Air Corps written entrance exam. Holway states, “Conditions were primitive . . . The men lived in tents. The mess hall consisted of four walls and a sand floor . . . and November rain turned everything into ‘Mud city’. The white officers on base were treated as though they bunked in a five-star hotel compared to the black soldiers quartered on the same base. The black soldiers suffered humiliation on every hand to have a right to fight for those who cared nothing for them. It was highly recommended they stay on the base because of the poor race relations in the South. Off the base, they were not seen as soldiers but as “colored” or “niggers”. For the Cadets of the 99th Fighter Squadron, their everyday activities were viewed under a microscope. They had already been slated to fail. Whatever they did, they had to do it better. Many cadets were “washed out.” For one reason or another they did not make the cut and had to leave the program. Dryden recalls being reminded of wash-out by his flight instructor, “Mr. Dryden, if you don’t start using the rudder in turns, I’m going to wash you out!” It was plain to see how much pressure these cadets were under. He worked hard, in the movie, to break the morale of the cadets. Mr. Luther H. Smith, a member of the fighting 99th, recalled, “We were educated, and we were just determined that we could become military aviators when white military leaders felt we lacked the courage and competence to do so.” Commanded by white officers mostly, the cadets’ lives were stressed. Several times there were reports circulating about how poorly the Black soldiers performed at Tuskegee. Colonel Momyer in a statement said, “Based on the performance of the 99th Fighter Squadron to date, it is my opinion that they are not of the fighting caliber of any squadron in this Group. They have failed to display the aggressiveness and desire for combat that are necessary to a first-class fighting organization. It may be expected that we will get less work and less operational time out of the 99th Fighter Squadron than any squadron in this group.”

There was a commissary on base so they were able to get needed supplies. They also coordinated USO shows in which Black celebrities came and performed on base. Stars like Lena Horne visited the base. This leisure time eased the stress of training. Members of Maxwell Field also printed their own newspaper, the Hawks Cry. One entry in the February 16, 1943 edition reminded its soldiers to, “claim your birthright, to do your best work, to achieve all of which you are now capable, and to aspire to still higher things.”

Many who passed their training at Tuskegee did not get to see actual combat. The base suffered from overcrowding because the military would not utilize African American soldiers in the theatre of war. However, in April 1943, the squadron finally got its chance to prove themselves to doubters. When they arrived, they were not greeted with open arms. Holway stated, “When Davis and Roberts reported, he didn’t return their salutes or stand up or say welcome . . . He merely looked at them and barked, “Well, I hope you’ve got replacements; I’ve been losing a lot of my squadron commanders.” They were stationed in North Africa to assist in the Italian campaign in the Mediterranean Theatre. The 99th Squadron combined with the 332nd and became just the 332nd. Their primary mission was to escort bomber planes through enemy territory which they achieved without losing a single bomber. The unit also shot key targets such as submarines or railway lines carrying military equipment and munitions which help to gain ground for the Allied armies. The squadron regularly engaged German pilots in aerial combat. It received its share of successes and gained recognition from high-ranking AAF officials as an experienced combat unit. Members of the unit were known as “Redtails” or “Redtail Angels” because of the red paint on the back of the plane. Half of the time, those they escorted did not even know that the crews were Black men.

When the Airmen were stationed overseas, they still suffered mistreatment from the Army. The average white fighter pilot was required to fly fifty missions, and then go home. But because the only replacements for the 99th came out of Tuskegee, they had to fly seventy missions before they were rotated home. Luther H. Smith was already a licensed pilot when he entered the military. In 1944, while “strafing” targets he was hit by enemy fighters. His plane became inoperable and he was forced to abandon it. He was captured by the Germans and because a prisoner of war in October 1944. While in captivity, he was treated like a first class citizen, with much respect. He learned the German language in order to be able to communicate with his captors. He had a conversation with a German officer in which the officer told him “. . . You are black American . . . You volunteered to fight for a country that lynches your people.” This was true. Many blacks hoped that fighting for their country would give them the respect they so longed for. When they were fighting and close to death, blacks and whites worked together. Color was not a factor. When they returned to America, the same ones that fought with them side by side once again treated them as second-class citizens.

Americans at that time were hypocritical. They preached equality, but practiced the exact opposite. The whole world, at the time, was looking at America. What the world saw was not necessarily an injustice of the same magnitude as that in Germany; however, they were mistreating their own because of race. Blacks had to endure needless hardships. Jim Crow laws not only hindered civilian life, but also stifled the military as well. Those who entered Tuskegee paved the way for many others to fight for their country. They proved time and time again their worth to their country and their fellow Americans. It would be years more before true equality came to fruition for military men of color. But where the Tuskegee Airmen were concerned, they met the challenge and overcame obstacles that did not seem surmountable.