President Harry S. Truman signed Executive Order 9981 on July 26, 1948, requiring the desegregation of the U.S. Armed Forces.
It was an important day for America and the U.S. military, but it did not come in time to prevent discrimination and reprisals against a legendary group of American war heroes, the Tuskegee Airmen.
America has been reckoning with its racist history for a long time. While there are those who might feel threatened by that statement, one only has to look at the example and struggles of the Tuskegee Airmen to see not only how deep that racism can go, but also how deeply flawed racist thinking is.
A particularly sad example of American racism in American history, the story of the Tuskegee Airmen serves as an important lesson. The messages of racism and populist politics is that there is a “superior race” and inferior ones.
Such viewpoints may allow for more than one “superior” bunch, or perhaps they function under the delusion that “they were here first”. Whatever the cause of such thinking, it is deeply flawed and badly informed.
The Tuskegee Airmen showed just how important it is to push back against such ideas, and they did with their deeds and not their words.
Who Are The Tuskegee Airmen?
The basic description of the Tuskegee Airmen involves barrier breaking; this was the very first group of Black military aviators in the United States Army Air Corps.
These pilots earned their wings prior to the creation of the Air Force in 1947. They were responsible for 15,000 flights in Europe and North Africa during the Second World War.
That description does not tell the whole story.
The military newspaper Stars And Stripes reports that in 1925, the United States Army War College published a report on what was then declared as the “proper employment” of Black Americans.
That report included the following poison pill: “…in physical courage it must be admitted that the American Negro falls well back of the white man and possibly behind all other races.”
The same Stars and Stripes report includes the response from Charles Dryden, who was in 1941 chosen to attend Aviation Cadet Training at Tuskegee Army flying school in Alabama.
Stripes reports, “The dissertation, Dryden said, asserted that blacks could not be taught anything technical — especially how to fly an airplane — due to severe limitations in ‘all mental, moral, physical and psychological characteristics.’
Dryden is quoted as saying once the Tuskegee Airmen got into combat, they “shot down 13 aircraft in just two days. That changed a lot of people’s attitudes about black pilots.”
The first pilot training program class for Black American military pilots began in July 1941 at Tuskegee, Alabama at Tuskegee Army Air Field.
That first class included Captain Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. and at the end of the training, he and his classmates were transferred to a segregated unit. This program was responsible for approximately 1,000 pilots but also many more navigators, mechanics, bombardiers, and control tower crews.
Some of these troops were deployed to North Africa and Sicily during World War Two, and Tuskegee pilots were saddled with what some sources describe as “second-hand aircraft” which were at serious disadvantages compared to those flown by their German opponents.
Upon relocation to Italy, the crews fared better, shooting down a dozen German warplanes in only two days.
Tuskegee Airmen also began flying missions to provide protection for 15th Air Force bombers. For these missions, Tuskegee Airmen had the tails of their escort planes painted red. This became an identifier for the group and they became known as “Red Tails”.
The Red Tails had an enduring legend that they never lost a bomber during these escort missions. The reality is that many, many aircraft in the war were lost for a variety of reasons–weather, anti-aircraft fire, enemy planes, mechanical failures, pilot error, etc.
The Red Tails likely lost some 25 aircraft due to these issues, but records of the flying missions includes the fact that these pilots and crews lost fewer aircraft than other escort groups responsible for protecting the bombers of 15th Air Force.
Two weeks before the Germans surrendered, Tuskegee Airmen had flown more than 15,000 individual missions over a two-year period. Tuskegee crews not only shot down or destroyed hundreds of German aircraft, they were also credited with a “kill” on a German Destroyer.
More than 60 Tuskegee Airmen died in combat, and more than 30 were shot down and captured as prisoners of war.
The end of the war did not change the institutional racism black soldiers would come home to, but progress was on the way thanks to the executive order of President Harry S. Truman in 1948.
This executive order had the effect of officially demanding a change in culture within the military. Prior to desegregation Black soldiers, sailors, Airmen, and Marines were subject to the whims of petty-minded commanders who insisted on Jim Crow-type segregation in officer’s clubs, in training environments, etc.
Such insistence on keeping people separated had predictable results. One incident resulted in legal action against a group of Tuskegee Airmen in something called the Freeman Field Mutiny.
The so-called crimes of those involved included demanding equal access to on-base establishments like all-white officer’s clubs.
The Freeman Field Mutiny is considered by some to be a military version of the Rosa Parks story and the motivations are definitely similar. A group of American citizens got fed up with being treated badly simply for showing up, and decided to do something about it. In both cases, history proved Rosa Parks and those who “mutinied” at Freeman Field correct.
The Legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen
In spite of the struggles to be recognized as fellow Americans, servicemembers, and veterans, many of the Tuskegee Airmen went on to significant military careers. Captain Benjamin Davis, who was among the very first class to graduate, would also rise through the ranks to become the first Black general in the United States Air Force.
Colonel George Roberts would become the first Black commander of an Air Force unit, Chappie James became the first Black four-star general. There were many, many others, these are just a few of the most recognizable names in U.S. military history.
In 2007, President George W. Bush would honor the surviving members of the original Tuskegee Airmen with Congressional Gold Medals. President Barack Obama invited these pilots and support crews to attend his inauguration, saying his career was made possible by people like them.
Joe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News
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