Red-Tail Angels

Say My Name 

Do you know the name Walter White? Maybe it sounds familiar because you were a fan of the AMC crime drama series Breaking Bad (2008–2013). However, the character Brian Cranston immortalized is not my focus today. As a matter of fact, either is Walter Francis White, who was a prominent civil rights activist, even though he has a significant impact on my story.

Walter led the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) for a quarter of a century, 1929–1955, after joining the organization in 1918. More importantly, he helped bring awareness and support to assure that Black men could enlist and become military pilots.

I could and will write an entire blog dedicated to the amazing man and all he has done to support justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion in the U.S. However, today I will focus on the story of the Tuskegee Airman and how they came to be one of the more famous airmen of their time. 

Photo Credit of Walter Francis White

We Shall Overcome 

Tuskegee Airmen 1943

The Tuskegee Airmen were a group of primarily African American military pilots (fighter and bomber) and airmen who fought in World War II. The men formed the two specific groups in the United States Army Air Forces.

First was the 332d Expeditionary Operations Group, and the second was the 477th Bombardment Group. How these men came to be and what they accomplished is nothing short of amazing.

We Support our Troops 

Before the Tuskegee Airmen, no African-American had been a U.S. military pilot. For example, during WWI, African-American men had tried to become aerial observers but were not allowed to serve. U.S. citizen Eugene Bullard, a black man, was accepted by the French air service during World War I and served as a pilot. To clarify, he did this because he was not allowed to perform in an American unit.  

The racially motivated rejections of World War I black recruits supported the future men who wanted to enlist and train as military aviators. The call for support and the advocacy they would receive lasted for two decades. Eventually, men like Walter White (NAACP), labor union leader A. Philip Randolph and Judge William H. Hastie would come to the aid of these men.

Finally, on April 3, 1939, Appropriations Bill Public Law 18 was passed by Congress containing an amendment by Senator Harry H. Schwartz designating funds for training African-American pilots. The collaboration of black and white people helped move old thinking to new. Even the War Department managed to put the money into funds of civilian flight schools willing to train black Americans.  

In 1941, the War Department and the Army Air Corps, under pressure - for months, finally completed their transformation into the United States Army Air Force USAAF - constituted the first all-black flying unit, the 99th Pursuit Squadron.  

Tuskegee Airmen in their Classroom

The Best and Brightest 

Because only the finest could fly for the U.S., complex standardized tests were required to quantify IQ, agility, and leadership qualities to select and train the best-suited personnel for bombardier, navigator, and pilot roles. At Tuskegee, this effort continued with the selection and training of the Tuskegee Airmen. As a result, it ensured that only the ablest and most intelligent African-American applicants could join. Subsequently, the high standards created an elite group of men. The recruits were screened and super-screened again. These men were unquestionably amung the brightest and most physically fit young men in the country. An unintentional consequence of employing the irrational laws of Jim Crow created pilots who were the best of the best. No other group of airmen could compare.

As aviation cadets, the first five black youths were admitted to the Officers Training School (OTS) at Chanute Field in Rantoul, Illinois. Specifically, Elmer D. Jones, Dudley Stevenson, James Johnson of Washington, DC; Nelson Brooks of Illinois; and William R. Thompson of Pittsburgh, PA, all successfully completed OTS and were commissioned as the first Black Army Air Corps Officers.

Tuskegee Army Air Field became the only Army installation performing three phases of pilot training (basic, advanced, and transition) at a single location. Initially, the plan was to have 500 personnel in residence at a time. By mid-1942, Tuskegee had over six times that amount stationed, even though only two squadrons were training there.

Captin, my Captin 

While training, the men at Tuskegee Army Airfield served under a white Major, Noel F. Parrish. Counter to the prevalent racism of the day, Parrish was fair and open-minded and petitioned Washington to allow the Tuskegee Airmen to serve in combat. However, the Army responded by stating regulations that an African-American flight surgeon support the operations and training of the Tuskegee Airmen. But, before the development of this unit, no U.S. Army flight surgeons had been black. As a result, the U.S. Army School of Aviation Medicine at Randolph Field, Texas, was one of the earliest racially integrated courses in the history of the Army.   

Two intense years had passed since the creation of the 99th Pursuit Squadron, but in 1943 the group got their first mission. With little guidance from battle-experienced pilots, the 99th's first combat mission was to attack the small strategic volcanic island of Pantelleria to clear the sea lanes for the Allied invasion of Sicily in July 1943. The 99th flew its first combat mission on June 2 and captured the garrison of 11,121 Italians and 78 Germans due to their air attack. Until this event, no other fighting squadron was able to achieve this amount of success. It was the first of its kind. The 99th then moved on to Sicily and received a Distinguished Unit Citation (DUC) for its performance in combat.

Our Angels! 

The 99th was assigned to escort heavy bombers in Czechoslovakia, Austria, Hungary, Poland, and Germany following this success. They were now named the 332nd and earned an impressive combat record for their support. The name "Red Tails" or "Red-Tail Angels" became the Tuskegee Airmen's new nickname because of the distinctive crimson unit identification marking applied on the tail section of the unit's aircraft.  

The 99th Pursuit Squadron and the 332nd Fighter Group earned three Distinguished Unit Citations (DUC) during World War II. The team successfully fought off German jet aircraft and shot down three German jets in a single day. The mission was the most extended bomber escort mission of the Fifteenth Air Force throughout the war. Pilots Charles Brantley, Earl Lane, and Roscoe Brown (see picture of him at the end of the blog) all shot down German jets over Berlin in a single day. The type of bravery and skill on display was unheard of for the day.   

The only black air units that saw combat during the war were the 99th Pursuit Squadron and the 332nd Fighter Group. Pilots of the 332nd Fighter Group earned 96 Distinguished Flying Crosses. Their missions took them over Italy and enemy-occupied central and southern Europe. Furthermore, this was the most successful and recognized group of men for dive-bombing and strafing missions in the USAAF.  

Mustang Red Tail

Photo Credit Mustang Red Tail 

You will Never Stand Alone

Finally, after the 99th returned to the U.S., they combined with the B-25 bomb group called the 477th, redesignated the 477th Composite Group. In all, 992 pilots were trained in Tuskegee from 1941 to 1946; 355 fought overseas, and 84 lost their lives. The toll included 68 pilots killed in action or accidents, 12 died in training and non-combat missions, and 32 captured as prisoners of war. These men gave their lives to preserve freedom and never let the word no or can't defeat them.

Time after time, we receive messages that tell us we are different or separate. Or we perhaps believe that we are. Based on the people who supported and participated in creating the Tuskegee Airmen in 1939, we now know we have never stood alone. In honor of their outstanding accomplishments, the Congressional Gold Medal was collectively presented to 300 Tuskegee Airmen or their widows by President George W. Bush on March 29, 2007.

Congressional Gold Medal to Dr. Roscoe Brown Jr., during ceremonies honoring the Tuskegee Airmen Thursday, March 29, 2007, at the U.S. Capitol. Dr. Brown, Director of the Center for Urban Education Policy and University Professor at the Graduate School and University Center of the City University of New York, commanded the 100th Fighter Squadron of the 332 Fighter Group during World War II.


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