by Gerald Boerner
“I had an idea of who they were, but not to the extent of their contributions.”
— Captain Gonzales
“The more I learned about it, the more I knew that (flying) was what I wanted to do.”
— Captain Edwards, Recruiter
“Their story shouldn’t be reserved just for February. Their story should be celebrated throughout the year.”
— Captain Gonzales
“There weren’t a lot of black people doing it, “They’d think, ‘I’d never seen a black pilot before, so I don’t think I’m going to see one now.’ ”
— Captain Edwards, Recruiter
“One of the quotes we had to learn was in regards to the Tuskegee Airmen, ‘To be honest, it seemed that these guys were just like all of us. They were Airmen like the rest of us.’ ”
— Captain Gonzales
“I tried to get more African-Americans into the Air Force. I think some thought it was unattainable, but you don’t know what’s going to be hard until you try.”
— Captain Edwards, Recruiter
“During World War II, black fighter pilots fought the Germans abroad and racism in the ranks … may we never forget … and may future generations understand the way it was.”
— Phyllis Gomer-Douglas
“They were just like me and just like you. These guys were warfighters for our nation. They did their job, not with the intent to make a name for black aviators, but to be fighters for their country.”
— Captain Gonzales
“Tuskegee is more than a town located in Macon County, Alabama. It is an idea and an ideal. It was a bold experiment and a site of major African-American achievements for over 100 years.”
— Barbara J. Feldman
“They said we didn’t have the intelligence, the demeanor, the courage to be combat pilots. They learned differently. It was never about color; it was always about education and opportunity. All we needed was a chance and training. And we seized it when it came.”
— Frank McGee, Fighter Pilot
Veterans Day: The Tuskegee Airmen
The Tuskegee Airmen is the popular name of a group of African American pilots who flew with distinction during World War II as the 332nd Fighter Group of the US Army Air Corps.
Prior to the Tuskegee Airmen, no U.S. military pilots had been African American. A series of legislative moves by the United States Congress in 1941 forced the Army Air Corps to form an all-black combat unit, despite the War Department’s reluctance. In an effort to eliminate the unit before it could begin, the War Department set up a system to accept only those with a level of flight experience or higher education that they expected would be hard to fill. This policy backfired when the Air Corps received an abundance of applications from men who qualified even under these restrictive specifications, many of whom had already participated in the Civilian Pilot Training Program, which the historically-black Tuskegee Institute had participated in since 1939.
The U.S. Army Air Corps had established the Psychological Research Unit 1 at Maxwell Army Air Field, Montgomery, Alabama, and other units around the country for aviation cadet training, which included the identification, selection, education, and training of pilots, navigators and bombardiers. Psychologists employed in these research studies and training programs used some of the first standardized tests to quantify IQ, dexterity, and leadership qualities in order to select and train the right personnel for the right role (bombardier, pilot, navigator). The Air Corps determined that the same existing programs would be used for all units, including all-black units. At Tuskegee, this effort would continue with the selection and training of the Tuskegee Airmen.
Major James A. Ellison returns
the salute of Mac Ross of Dayton,
Ohio, as he passes down the
line during review of the first
class of Tuskegee cadets.
Strict racial segregation in the U.S. Army required the development of separate African American flight surgeons to support the operations and training of the Tuskegee Airmen. Prior to the development of this unit, all U.S. Army flight surgeons were white. Training of African American men as aviation medical examiners was conducted through correspondence courses until 1943 when two black physicians were admitted to the U.S. Army’s School of Aviation Medicine at Randolph Field, Texas. This was one of the earliest racially integrated courses in the U.S. Army. Seventeen flight surgeons served with Tuskegee Airmen from 1941 through 1949. At that time, the typical tour of duty for a U.S. Army flight surgeon was four years. Six of these physicians lived under field conditions during operations in North Africa, Sicily and Italy. The chief flight surgeon to the Tuskegee Airmen was Vance H. Marchbanks, Jr., M.D., a boyhood friend of Benjamin O. Davis, Jr.
On March 19, 1941, the 99th Pursuit Squadron (Pursuit being the pre-World War II descriptive for "Fighter") was activated at Chanute Field in Rantoul, Illinois. Over 250 enlisted men were trained at Chanute in aircraft ground support trades. This small number of enlisted men became the core of other black squadrons forming at Tuskegee and Maxwell Fields in Alabama.
Tuskegee Airmen in
front of a P-40.
In June 1941, the Tuskegee program officially began with formation of the 99th Fighter Squadron at the Tuskegee Institute. The unit consisted of an entire service arm, including ground crew. After basic training at Moton Field, they were moved to the nearby Tuskegee Army Air Field about 16 km (10 mi) to the west for conversion training onto operational types. The Airmen were placed under the command of Captain Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., then one of the few black West Point graduates.
During its training, the 99th Fighter Squadron was commanded by white and Puerto Rican officers, beginning with Major James Ellison. By 1942, Colonel Frederick Kimble oversaw operations at the Tuskegee airfield. Kimble maintained segregation on the field in deference to local customs, a policy the airmen resented. Later that year, the Air Corps replaced Kimble with the director of instruction at Tuskegee Army Airfield, Major Noel F. Parrish. Parrish, counter to the prevalent racism of the day, was fair and open-minded, and petitioned Washington to allow the Tuskegee Airmen to serve in combat. The founder of Negro Airmen International, Edward A. Gibbs, was a civilian flight instructor in the U.S. Aviation Cadet Program at the airfield during this time. An Instructor of the 99th Pursuit Squadron was Lt Daniel James, Jr.
Considered ready for combat duty, the 99th was transported to Casablanca, Morocco, on the USS Mariposa and participated in the North African campaign. From Morocco they traveled by train to Oujda then to Tunis from where they operated against the enemy. Flyers and ground crew alike were largely isolated by the racial segregation practices of their initial command, the white 33rd Fighter Group and its commander Colonel William W. Momyer. The flight crews were handicapped by being left with little guidance from battle-experienced pilots beyond a week spent with Colonel Phillip Cochran. The 99th’s first combat mission was to attack the small but strategic volcanic island of Pantelleria in the Mediterranean Sea, in preparation for the Allied invasion of Sicily in July 1943. The 99th moved to Sicily where it received a Distinguished Unit Citation for its performance in combat.
Pilots of the 332nd Fighter Group,
"Tuskegee Airmen" at Ramitelli
Airfield, Italy. From left to right,
Lt. Dempsey W. Morgan, Lt. Carroll
S. Woods, Lt. Robert H. Nelron,
Jr., Capt. Andrew D. Turner and
Lt. Clarence P. Lester
Colonel Momyer, however, told media sources in the U.S. that the 99th was a failure and its pilots cowardly, incompetent or worse, resulting in a critical article in TIME. In response, the House Armed Services Committee convened a hearing to determine whether the Tuskegee Airmen experiment should be allowed to continue. Momyer accused the 99th’s pilots of being incompetent, based on the fact that they had seen little air-to-air combat. To bolster the recommendation to scrap the project, a member of the committee commissioned and then submitted into evidence a "scientific" report by the University of Texas which purported to prove that African Americans were of low intelligence and incapable of handling complex situations (such as air combat).
Col. Benjamin O. Davis, Jr.,
commander of the Tuskegee
Airmen 332nd Fighter Group,
in front of his P-47 Thunderbolt
Colonel Davis forcefully denied the committee members’ claims, but only the intervention of Colonel Emmett "Rosie" O’Donnell prevented a recommendation for disbandment of the squadron from being sent to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. General Hap Arnold ordered an evaluation of all Mediterranean Theater P-40 units be undertaken to determine the true merits of the 99th; the results showed the 99th Fighter Squadron to be at least equal to other units operating the fighter.
Shortly after the hearing, three new squadrons fresh out of training at Tuskegee embarked for Africa. After several months operating separately, all four squadrons were combined to form the all-black 332nd Fighter Group.
Men of the 332nd Fighter Group
attend a briefing in Italy in 1945.
The squadron won its second Distinguished Unit Citation on May 12-14, 1944, while attached to the 324th Fighter Group, attacking German positions on Monastery Hill (Monte Cassino), attacking infantry massing on the hill for a counterattack, and bombing a nearby strong point to force the surrender of the German garrison to Moroccan Goumiers.
By the spring of 1944, more graduates were ready for combat, and the all-black 332nd Fighter Group had been sent overseas with three fighter squadrons: The 100th, 301st, and 302nd. Under the command of Colonel Davis, the squadrons were moved to mainland Italy, where the 99th Fighter Squadron, assigned to the group on May 1, joined them on June 6 at Ramitelli Airfield, near Termoli on the Adriatic coast. From Ramitelli, the Airmen of the 332nd Fighter Group escorted Fifteenth Air Force heavy strategic bombing raids into Czechoslovakia, Austria, Hungary, Poland, and Germany.
Flying escort for heavy bombers, the 332nd earned an impressive combat record. Reportedly, the Luftwaffe awarded the Airmen the nickname, "Schwarze Vogelmenschen," or "Black Birdmen." The Allies called the Airmen "Redtails" or "Redtail Angels," because of the distinctive crimson paint on the vertical stabilizers of the unit’s aircraft.
Controversy over escort record
While it had long been said that the Redtails were the only fighter group who never lost a bomber to enemy fighters, suggestions to the contrary, combined with Air Force records and eyewitness accounts indicating that at least 25 bombers were lost to enemy fire, resulted in the Air Force conducting a reassessment of the history of the unit in late 2006.
The claim that no bomber escorted by the Tuskegee Airmen had ever been lost to enemy fire first appeared on March 24, 1945, in the Chicago Defender, under the headline "332nd Flies Its 200th Mission Without Loss." According to the March 28, 2007, Air Force report, however, some bombers under 332nd Fighter Group escort protection were shot down on the very day the Chicago Defender article was published. The subsequent report, based on after-mission reports filed by both the bomber units and Tuskegee fighter groups as well as missing air crew records and witness testimony, was released in March 2007 and documented 25 bombers shot down by enemy fighter aircraft while being escorted by the Tuskegee Airmen.
Background and biographical information is from Wikipedia articles on:
The Tuskegee Airmen that can be found at…