Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Red Tails: The Red Tail Squadron

Like thousands of other Americans in 1940 and 1941, the young black men who would become known as the Tuskegee Airmen were full of patriotic zeal during the run-up to the country’s involvement in World War II. What set them apart was that they wanted to fight the enemy from the air as pilots. Many applied to U.S. Army Air Corps flight training programs, but all were rejected because of the color of their skin.
In 1941, under pressure from political groups and President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Army Air Corps reversed its position on accepting black flight program applicants. However, the brass was not fully committed to this change so they set up the “Tuskegee Experiment.” The black pilot cadets would train at a segregated base in Tuskegee, Alabama. Flight support personnel would train at Chanute Air Base in Rantoul, Illinois, but would also be segregated.
It was called an “experiment” because the initiative was expected to fail. The Army’s decisions about blacks in its ranks were still influenced by a 1925 Army War College report called The Use of Negro Manpower in War. The 67-page report was full of cruel generalizations about the behavior of black men during wartime and the black race in general. It even went so far as to state that black men are “very low in the scale of human evolution.” The black cadets were determined to create a record of excellence during their training and future war service to make the “experiment” work.
The first class of 13 cadets began training in 1942. Five young men made it through the entire program, earning their wings in March 1943. One of those was Captain Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., a 1936 West Point graduate who had endured four years of “shunning” by his white classmates who only spoke to him when required to for class or military training. Davis’ father, General Benjamin O. Davis, Sr., was the only black line officer in the U.S. Army at that time. Davis, Jr. would soon join him as the second black line officer as he moved through the ranks as a leader of the Tuskegee-trained pilots. He would become the U.S. Air Force’s first black general.
In all, 996 men earned their wings at Tuskegee. 450 of them would be sent to fight and fly in North African and Europe as fighter pilots. The others were trained as bomber pilots, but the war ended before they could be deployed to the Pacific theater. Of those who fought, 66 gave their lives and 32 became prisoners of war.

No comments: