A Graduationg class of Tuskegee Airmen
By Yussuf J. Simmonds
“They allowed Black military men to fly the friendly skies with honor”
When Barack Obama was inaugurated as the 44th president of the United States of America, over 180 Tuskegee Airmen were there to witness the event. They were not sure it would have happened in their lifetime but they knew that their gallant efforts had made it possible. At age 89 and wheelchair bound, H.M. Cummings was there and he said, “I knew it had to happen, but I didn’t expect it so soon.” It was actually a long time for he recalled the humiliation of racism he suffered in the military during World War II.
So too did 84-year-old Billy Holloman, another one of the Tuskegee Airmen alumni, witnessed the inauguration and said, “I am proud to witness this changing of the guard in American politics.”
Retired Lieutenant William Broadwater concluded, “The culmination of our efforts and others’ was this great prize we were given on Nov. 4. Now we feel like we’ve completed our mission.”
And after the inauguration Vernon Robinson, who met fellow pilot of the U.S. Airways/Hudson River fame, Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, said, “I never thought I would see a Black man become president of the United States.”
When the United States Military needed pilots in World War II, Black men were not initially allowed to fly the military “friendly” skies. The military reflected society and society was segregated. Black men were not allowed to be military pilots and the Tuskegee Airmen evolved from willingness of Blacks to serve their country and the needs of the U.S. military for skilled pilots. The willingness and the need blended together and 332nd Fighter Group of the U.S. Army Air Corps came into being and became the Tuskegee Airmen. They flew with honor and distinction despite the harsh realities of racial segregation.
In 1941, the U.S. Congress drafted legislation mandating the U.S. Military to form an all-Black combat unit. The Defense Department was reluctant and with good justification: the treatment that White society – sanctioned and institutionalized by the government – meted out to Blacks was so repugnant that the government asked the question, “what if?” relative to arming “its” Black citizens. The reality was Black men wanted to become soldiers to serve “their” country, even if the country did not serve them. Thus was born the Tuskegee Airmen.
The Defense Department tried to derail the all-Black unit from its inception despite the mandate from Congress. The department set the bar so high believing that there would not be enough qualified Blacks to fill the positions. It was wrong. There was an abundance of Black pilots from the Civilian Pilot Training Program
who had been trained at the Tuskegee Institute since 1939.
Racial segregation conditions were strictly enforced even the flight surgeons who supported the training of the Black unit, had to be Black, and they were trained through correspondence courses. It was not until 1943 that two Black doctors were admitted to the Army’s School of aviation medicine. The normal tour of duty was four years and Black doctors had to live under the same segregated conditions as their servicemen patients. The chief flight surgeon was Dr. Vance H. Marchbanks, Jr, a boyhood friend of General Benjamin O. Davis, Jr, a Tuskegee Airmen.
The first five cadets to graduate from Tuskegee Airbase were: Captain Davis, Lieutenants Custis, Ross, DeBow and Roberts. At the end of World War II only Lt. Mac Ross had been deceased. Though still segregated, the Tuskegee Airmen officially entered the military family in June 1941 as the 99th Fighter Squadron under the command of the Captain Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., a graduate of West Point Military Academy. Now trained and ready for action, a petition still had to be sent to Washington for combat approval of a trained army unit because they were Black.
Ironically, the unit was deployed to North Africa. Their first combat mission was to attack an island off the coast of North Africa in the Mediterranean Sea. They were successful and were eventually moved to Sicily, Italy, prior to the Allied Invasion. The 99th received a Distinguished Unit Citation for its performance in combat, but was still segregated.
Despite the citation, the unit was reported to have been less than combat- worthy which resulted in a critical article in the national media. The Tuskegee Airmen were accused of incompetence primarily based on lack of experience, which they were not allowed to get via more combat missions. Then a colonel, Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. came to their rescue and with the assistance of a White general, prevented a disbandment of the unit through a total review of the 99th squadron’s performance in the Mediterranean Theater.
That review bolstered the unit and three new squadrons were drafted from Tuskegee and sent to Africa where, along with the initial unit, they formed the 332nd Fighter Group. Initially, they were equipped with P-40 Warhawks but later on came to be identified with the P-51 Mustang.
During the raid on Anzio in January 1944, 11 of the 99th squadron pilots had shot down enemy planes and by the end of the Anzio operation, they had the highest score of shooting down enemy aircrafts. After that performance, they were assigned to attacking German positions and bombing enemy strong point to force the surrender of the German garrison. For those actions, they won their second Distinguished Unit Citation. Ironically, it was reported that the captured White German soldiers received better treatment from the White U.S. soldiers that the Black U.S. soldiers did.
In the spring of 1944, more combat ready troops came out of Tuskegee and joined the 332nd Fighter Group in Italy still under the command of Colonel Davis. They escorted bombing raids into Austria, Czechoslovakia, Germany, Hungary and Poland. They earned an enviable reputation and were referred to by the Germans as “Schwarze Vogelmenschen,” Black Birdmen; the Allies called them “Redtails” named from the distinctive reddish paint of their aircrafts. Some of the pilots were in that operation was Lt. Dempsey W. Morgan, Lt. Carroll S. Woods, Lt. Robert H. Nelson, Jr., Capt. Andrew D. Turner and Lt. Clarence P. Lester. After they returned to the U.S., they became part of the 477th Bombardment Group, redesignated as the 477th Composite Group.
By the end of World War II, the Tuskegee Airmen had flown more than 1500 missions and had shot down over 100 enemy aircrafts, sunk a destroyer and destroyed a multitude to trucks, trains and fuel dumps. Furthermore, they had lost only three P-51s. In addition to their third Distinguished Unit Citation, they also received several Silver Stars, 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses, 8 Purple Hearts, 14 Bronze Stars and 744 Air Medals. Almost 1000 pilots were trained at the Tuskegee Airbase between 1940 and 1946; 445 were deployed overseas and 150 had lost their lives in combats and/or accidents. But the unit was still segregated.
Controversy arose as to the accuracy of the records relative to the Tuskegee Airmen after the war, followed by numerous investigations that followed them through every war since including the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars. (The Air Force was still conducting historic re-evaluation and reassessment of the unit in 2006). However, no account seemed to have mentioned the harsh racial conditions that the men from Tuskegee had to endure. In essence they fought against two enemies: one in the overseas theater and the other at “home” in the U.S. It was not until 1948, that President Harry S. Truman issued Executive Order 9981 and the U.S. military began to loosen its rigid racial segregation policies. The veteran Tuskegee Airmen were then in high demand throughout the U.S. Air Force and in civilian flight schools. Later on, many also became commercial airline pilots.
As in any war, record keeping is difficult and in its aftermath, research is even more difficult. But the fundamental issue remained and Holloman said that the Tuskegee story is not about the accuracy of the record, but about the pilots who rose above adversity and discrimination to open the doors that were once closed to Black America.
After their tours of duty, many of the unit’s members went on to achieve milestones in their civilian careers as they did in the military: such as George L. Brown who became lieutenant governor of Colorado; Lemuel A. Lewis who earned a master’s degree and taught science and math at George W. Carver High School in Baltimore; Lt. Col. Charles Dryden, author of “A-Train: Memoirs of a Tuskegee Airman;” and Celes King III, a businessman and influential community leader in Los Angeles. Others have kept a close-knit association and usually participate in many annual events.
In 2005, Lt. Colonels Lee Archer and Robert Ashby, and Sergeants James Sheppard and George Watson flew to Iraq on a speaking tour as part of the “re-incarnation” of the 332nd. President George W. Bush presented the Congressional Gold Medal to about 300 airmen in 2007 – some posthumously, via their widows – whose medals were to be displayed in the Smithsonian Museum. The airfield where the pilots trained is now a national historic site; there is a Tuskegee Airmen Memorial at Walterboro Army Airfield in South Carolina; and two congressmen have led an initiative to create a commemorative postage stamp in their honor.
Finally, a movie, “The Tuskegee Airmen,” was made starring Laurence Fishburne and another, to be titled “Redtails,” is presently being developed and will star Samuel L. Jackson, who is also scheduled to be the director.