Tuskgegee Airmen

by John Hunt

African-Americans fought two significant yet very different battles during World War II, for while fighting the Axis powers, they also battled against racial segregation and prejudice. The story of the fighter pilots trained at the Tuskegee Institute, portrayed in the movie The Tuskegee Airmen, testifies to their success in both struggles. The opportunity to fight for the United States, a country extolling the equality of all men, did not come easily for Black Americans trying to enter the predominately white armed forces. The various services, reflecting American society, disdained, and not surprisingly, blocked all attempts for racial integration. Black units had served in the Spanish-American War and World War I; however, the Army primarily used these men for service troops instead of combat troops. The Second World War, however, created the dynamics for significant change. Truly global in scope, this war taxed America's manpower enough to finally breakdown the major obstacles blocking the permanent integration of the armed forces. The pioneering black airmen of Tuskegee, Alabama played a vital role in this revolutionary process.

The Tuskegee Airmen, starring Lawrence Fishburn, Cuba Gooding Jr., and Andre Braugher as Colonel Benjamin O. Davis Jr., accurately portrays the struggle of the intelligent, young, Black Americans, determined to do their part for their country during the war. An early scene in the movie strikingly recounts the racial prejudice rampant in America, especially in the Southern states, where most of the training bases were located. As the prospective pilots ride a train toward Tuskegee, they encounter the ways of the South when they are told to get off the train and find another seat in the last car. Segregation, for the prospective pilots reared in the North and West, comes as a shock and as an introduction to the difficulties ahead. In reality, pilot training is very rigorous under the best circumstances; yet, these men faced a challenge few other aviation cadets could claim-pilot training complicated by racial segregation.

Arriving at the training base, the men are given two speeches by two very different instructors. First, the commanding officer tells the cadets that the program is an experiment, and that he intends to hold them to the highest standards to ensure that the program succeeds. The second officer admonishes the men, questioning the capacity of Black Americans learning to fly and fight. Symbolically, this officer represents the significant number of officers, as well as enlisted, who expected and even wanted to see the Tuskegee experiment fail. Revealing his biased attitude, this officer, who is also their primary flight instructor, orders the cadets to take the entrance exam a second time. He openly doubts the veracity of their high scores. Cheating, he believes, must have occurred. Yet, the cadets all score over 95 percent. Challenged as to their basic abilities as intelligent beings and experienced athletes, the actual Tuskegee cadets were similarly held to very high standards, most likely higher than many white aviation cadets.

The Tuskegee Airmen quickly jumps to scenes of flight training, where naturally some cadets excel and others fail. As a rule, flight training was very hazardous, and men frequently died in crashes. The movie accurately recounts this dismal fact. For the black airmen, however, every crash and imperfection is extensively investigated by critics, eager to prove that Black Americans are not as capable as whites. In March 1941, Eleanor Roosevelt visited Tuskegee to witness the training first hand. A major proponent of equal rights for black citizens, Mrs. Roosevelt was a firm believer and supporter of the program. Shocking all who were present, she eagerly clambered aboard an aircraft piloted by C. Alfred Anderson, a black instructor, for a flight over the base. Supporters, especially the black press, used this incident to rightfully praise the program and the Black American pilots. The film, with some artistic license, recounts this important event, which did much to accelerate the integration of blacks into the Army Air Forces.

Earlier, in the fall of 1940, President Franklin Roosevelt had the War and Navy departments publicly announce that blacks would be taken in large numbers into the armed forces, and more importantly, into combat units. While segregation still persisted, the President's decision widened the opportunity for black service in the war effort. The various services were not quick to embrace the idea, however, and only with difficulty did the persistence and pressure brought by advocates pay off with plans for black combat units. As a result, the first class from Tuskegee graduated on 7 March 1942, with the commissioning of five flight officers. Captain Benjamin O. Davis Jr., West Point graduate and son of the first black General, Benjamin O. Davis Sr., was one of the five graduates.

As subsequent classes completed training, a small pool of black pilots became available. These men, under the command of Colonel Davis, were formed into the 99th fighter squadron and made combat ready. Since the Army Air Force proved reluctant to deploy the black squadron, the pilots continued to train, receiving considerably more than their white counterparts. After delays, the 99th, under Colonel Davis, finally deployed to North Africa in early 1943, after the successful Allied invasion that preceding November.

The film The Tuskegee Airmen shows the main characters arriving in Africa after the 99th had already received its aircraft. There they met their commanding officer, Colonel Davis. In addition, the pilots met their maintenance and support personnel, who were also black. The Army did not want to risk placing enlisted whites under black officers; thus, black squadrons had accompanying black service support troops. This continuing segregation permitted the squadron to concentrate on fighting the war, instead of worrying about internal strife, which conceivably could have occurred. Furthermore, black enlisted personnel could demonstrate their abilities without any problems from biased white officers. While separate but equal did not always mean actual equality, especially during World War II, the airmen and maintenance teams of the 99th were free to function as soldiers first, and as a social experiment second. This was how the largest barriers in the military began to crumble-through proven performance and mission success.

In addition to flying combat missions in North Africa, the 99th also flew missions during the Sicilian and Italian campaigns, performing strafing and dive-bombing attacks on Axis forces. While the black pilots fought and died overseas, critics continued to question and criticize the program. Detractors cited the lack of aerial victories for the 99th as reason for curtailing the training of black pilots. Top Army officials were quoted as being disappointed with the results; however, the War Department repudiated a rumor that the squadron would be disbanded. The overriding reason for a lack of air-to-air kills was because command decisions assigned the 99th to mainly perform ground attack missions, and because the German Luftwaffe, following the invasion, had been quickly removed from the Mediterranean skies. Germany, under increasing aerial bombardment, recalled much of its airforce to defend the Fatherland, leaving its southern flank exceedingly short of air power. When put into the context and perspective of the Italian campaign, the 99th, between October 1943 and April 1944, performed similarly to the white squadrons in its parent fighter group.

January 1944 was an important month for the men from Tuskegee. Over Anzio, black pilots shot down thirteen Axis aircraft in two days, whereas in the previous six months overseas, they had shot down only one. This demonstrated that when given the opportunity to score aerial victories, the Tuskegee pilots were as good as any other American pilots. Moreover, the Tuskegee Experiment along with its supporters was vindicated, for the program could now be labeled a success.

By 1944 the Tuskegee training program had produced enough qualified pilots to create three additional squadrons. These squadrons, along with the 99th, were placed into their own fighter group, the 332nd commanded by Colonel Davis. Also in 1944, the squadrons began receiving the new, longer-ranged P-51 fighter, depicted in the film. Assigned to protect strategic bombers of the 15th Air Force, the 332nd began flying fighter escort missions for bombers flying into Southern and Eastern Europe. They even escorted bombers attacking the Axis oil fields at Ploesti, Romania, a heavily defended target. In 1945 the group continued escorting B-17s on bombing mission, penetrating as far as Austria and Berlin. Their record speaks for itself, during their numerous fighter-escort missions, the 332nd did not lose one American bomber to enemy fighters! Additionally, two pilots sank a German destroyer steaming in the Mediterranean. This action is realistically depicted in The Tuskegee Airmen, as are other excellent combat sequences.

The history of the Tuskegee Airmen is extraordinary, especially considering the seemingly insurmountable odds that all the pilots had to overcome. Sixty-six men from the Tuskegee Experiment died in battle defending their country. The airmen's contribution to the Allied victory was significant. More importantly, these pilots proved that blacks were equal to the task of flying expensive and complicated combat aircraft just as ably as white men, which contributed to President Harry Truman's decision to desegregate the entire military after the war. Critics were refuted and records made, and that is the legacy of the Tuskegee airmen. Today, black airmen serve along side white airmen in fully integrated squadrons, and race is no longer what sets the men apart. General Benjamin O. Davis Jr., saw, and continued to witness, the progress of Black Americans in the armed forces. Recently (1998), his efforts and leadership were rewarded with a fourth general's star long after his retirement, a belated but deserved reward for leading the Tuskegee airmen in battle over Europe.

There are numerous books covering the Tuskegee airmen. Charles E. Francis's The Tuskegee Airmen, originally published in 1953, was revised in 1993. Additionally, Lieutenant Colonel Charles W. Dryden, a Tuskegee airman, has written his memoirs, entitled A-Train, Memoirs of a Tuskegee Airman (1997). The most complete and well written work, however, is John B. Holway's Red Tails, Black Wings, The Men of America's Black Air Force (1997). All these books provide the reader with an excellent account of the Tuskegee Experiment or, more correctly, the Tuskegee success.