Black Pilots Shatter Myths

  Aviation History  




Black Pilots Shattered Myth

by MSgt. Linda E. Brandon


MAXWELL AFB, Ala. (AFNS Features) -- A 1925 Army War College study concluded that because they lacked intelligence and were cowardly under combat conditions, blacks would never have what it takes to fly aircraft of any type. Although there were already several licensed black pilots flying in the United States, it would be more than 20 years before this ill-conceived notion went up in the smoke of the 332nd Fighter Group over the skies of Europe.

The 332nd was the first all-black flying unit and the pilots learned to fly military aircraft at Tuskegee Army Airfield, Ala., a separate, black training facility built by the Army Air Corps. Between 1942 and 1946, 926 black pilots earned their wings and commissions there and 450 of them saw combat in Europe during World War II. They became known as the Tuskegee Airmen and their record speaks for itself. Their success is credited with prying open the doors to the integration of the armed forces. "We proved that the antidote to racism is excellence in performance," said retired Lt. Col. Herbert E. Carter, who started his military career as a pilot and maintenance officer with the 99th Fighter Squadron. The 332nd was made up of the 99th, 100th, 301st and 302nd Fighter squadrons but the Tuskegee Airmen were originally part of an experiment put together by the War Department to prove the validity of the 1925 study.

With World War II looming on the horizon, the government started a civilian pilot training program at colleges across the country to build up a reserve of qualified pilots for potential military service, Carter said. However, the training was not made available at black land-grant colleges until the government was put under political pressure to either prove that black men could not learn to fly or expand the CPTP to include them. One day after Yancy Williams, a student at Howard University, sued the government to be accepted as an aviation cadet, the War Department announced it was going to accept applications from black cadets for aviation cadet pilot training and eventually form a black flying unit.

"Can you imagine," asked Carter, "with the war clouds as heavy as they were over Europe, a citizen of the United States having to sue his government to be accepted to train so he could fly and fight and die for his country?" The government expected the experiment to fail and end the issue, said Carter. "The mistake they made was that they forgot to tell us and the instructors." Even though the original instructors were white, the colonel said he never personally saw racism or prejudice during training and credits the instructors for their top-notch performance. "That's why the pilots were as good as they were. If there was bias or prejudice, it never came through when they were instructing."

Off the flightline, however, it was another story, both at the airfield and in the town of Tuskegee. "Life at that time was tough," said Carter. "It was a purely segregated world, so the men more or less confined their life to the base. The black was a second class-citizen and they did not let you forget that." In spite of seemingly insurmountable odds and high expectations for failure, the first class of Tuskegee Airmen graduated five of 13 cadets to enter training completed the program, and by July 1942, when Carter's class graduated, the 99th FS was at full strength and ready to deploy.

However, almost another year would pass before the men who soon became known as lonely eagles would see combat. "We thought for sure that we'd be overseas by Thanksgiving of 1942," said Carter. But Christmas found them still at Tuskegee. "The problem was that no commander in the Pacific or Europe wanted this all-black squadron," said Carter. In April 1943, the 99th finally deployed to North Africa as part of the Allied armies fighting against the German and Italian forces there. Once in combat, they lost little time proving their mettle and soon earned the admiration of peers and enemy alike.

They were feared and respected by the Germans who nicknamed them "Schwartze Vogelmenschen," or Black Birdmen. With experience, the pilots became more aggressive and the Germans found them to be a formidable foe. "They didn't stand and fight like they did initially," said Carter. "They would hit and run rather than stand toe-to-toe and slug it out. There was none of the Red Baron type fighting." The prominent red tail flash the 99th flew into combat on their newly acquired P-51s, along with a growing reputation as the only unit to never lose a bomber to enemy fighters during escort missions, earned them the nickname "Redtail Angels" from American bombing crews.

By the time they were upgraded to the P-51, members of the 99th were reveling in their success, and confidence and esprit de corps were at an all-time high. "We wanted the bomber crews to know when the 332nd was escorting them and we wanted to make sure the Luftwaffe knew when we were airborne and in their territory," explained the colonel. "Since nobody else in that theater had red tails, we got the reddest paint we could find and painted our aircraft."

Between 1943 and 1945 the Tuskegee Airmen logged 15,533 sorties in the skies over North Africa, Italy and Germany. They destroyed or damaged 409 enemy aircraft, numerous fuel and ammunition dumps, sank a destroyer using only their machine guns and escorted over 200 bomber missions. Their accomplishments, which would be notable for any combat group, are all that much more incredible for being carried out by a group of men who were told they wouldn't make it as pilots. It's ironic that they were continually subjected to a type of human oppression very similar to what they were fighting against overseas, forcing them to fight two wars simultaneously -- one in Europe against Hitler and one at home against discrimination and segregation.

The price in human terms goes beyond the 66 combat deaths and 33 prisoners of war. But the 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses, eight Purple Hearts, 14 Bronze Stars, 744 Air Medals and clusters, and three distinguished unit citations speak volumes on the feats that make them heroes in their own right. The roster of Tuskegee Airmen is impressive and includes men like their commander, Col. Benjamin O. Davis. The son of the first black general, this West Point graduate was originally turned down for flight training but eventually went on to lead many of the Tuskegee Airmen into combat and to become the first black Air Force general. Another prominent graduate, Gen. Chappie James, saw combat in Korea and Vietnam and on Sept. 1, 1975, became the country's first black four star general.

And for every pilot, there were at least 10 black men and women on the ground in support roles including mechanics, medical technicians, administrative support and cooks. They were trained at Chanute Field, Ill., and according to Carter, were an outstanding group of people. "They did their job very well and are the reason the pilots were able to do what they did," he said. While their story may not be as widely known as it could be and their combat record was glossed over in the annals of history, the spirit and success of the Tuskegee Airmen continues to have far reaching implications for the U.S. military. Not only were they the catalyst for integration in the armed forces but they proved once and for all, that the color of the hands on the controls has absolutely nothing to do with the skill or ability of the crew.



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