Black History Month: Facts #17

The Tuskegee Airmen, Part I

Video, from the U.S Department of the Interior: Tuskegee

“The Tuskegee story is an important civil rights story of Americans who happen to be black, in service to their country, their family, and to their friends — in that order.” – Col. Charles E. McGee, National President of the Tuskegee Airmen

A short summary of the Tuskegee Airmen would be this: They were the first all-Black military pilot group who fought in World War 2. Their history and impact on American culture (including Civil Rights and the Black Community) is so much more.

Active from 1941 to 1946, The Tuskegee Airmen formed the 33nd Fighter Group and the 477th Bombardment Group of the U.S. Army Air Force. By the end of their services, the Airmen (according to History on the Net) had destroyed over 250 enemy aircraft and were awarded a total of 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses.

In the 1920s and 1930s, the U.S. Military had the notion that African-Americans would not perform well in combat and were incapable of flying; in fact, a 1925 study, conducted by the Army War College, concluded that “African-Americans were inherently ill-suited for combat physically and psychologically”. Flight schools, prepping for World War 2, were established throughout the nation… except at HBCUs. This changed with two events: The Spencer-Wright Flight (formerly the Goodwill Flight) – where 2 Black pilots, Chauncey Edward Spencer and Dale Lawrence White, flew from Chicago to Washington, D.C. – and a lawsuit that a Howard University student filed, with backing from the NAACP, President Franklin Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt, and the nation’s black newspapers. A flight school was founded in Tuskegee, Alabama, the Army Air Corps initiated the program on July 19, 1941, and the “Tuskegee Experiment” was born.

The Tuskegee program was so rigorous, you didn’t have time to think,” says Harold Hoskins, a former student at Tuskegee and the integrated pilot school at Texas’ Randolph Air Force Base. “A history master’s student, who happened to be Jewish, was interviewing me for her thesis, asked me if I knew anything about the Holocaust. Honestly, all that was on my mind was ‘Can I get through this program?’ I didn’t have the faintest idea about the Holocaust, nor about anything else that was happening in American society either, for that matter.”

Captain Benjamin O. Davis and 12 cadets were the initial class for Tuskegee’s inception; they would later form the 99th Pursuit Squadron. Davis would also later become the Air Force’s first Black General. The group’s first deployment was in April 1943, to North Africa (specifically, Morocco, to train with Curtiss P-40L Warhawk fighters). Experienced pilots of the 27th Fighter Group, including the highly accomplished Philip Cochrane, taught the 99th’s pilots the tricks of the air fighting trade, a relief to Davis and his troops, as they dealt with racial discrimination at home: “at least for the moment, from the evils of racial discrimination. Perhaps in combat overseas, we would have more freedom and respect than we had experienced at home.”

On June 9th, 1943, the Airmen came in contact with German Luftwaffe fighters for the first time. 5 pilots, in P-40 planes, broke away from the formation and chased down the faster, attacking German Messerschmitt Bf 109s. While Captain was pleased with their first mission, the “breaking away from traditional formations” would “feed a narrative aimed at unraveling the black flying program”, according to History on the Net.

Part II will deal with the Tuskegee Airmen’s battles in the sky, battles with racial discrimination within the U..S. Army, and their legacy, once back on U.S. soil. With my fondness of History (including a like of military battles/wars), I feel that there’s too much info and history with the Airmen to limit to a brief recap post.

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