Flying Through the Barriers of Prejudice
(Page 2 of 2)
The unit continued with escort work for some months, but even though they had much success, military leaders back in Washington, D.C., still felt that black pilots were not effective. Only after their commander, Benjamin Davis Jr., made a presentation based on their actual experience in combat did attitudes slowly begin to change.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Davis's skill and ability as a commander led to his being chosen to head up another black unit, the 332d Fighter Group. Here again, there was much racism to overcome, but as the men gained experience and began to work together, they formed a strong working unit.
In those days, supplies were carried by convoys of ships that traveled together with Navy vessels that were meant to protect them. One of the tasks given to the 332d Fighter Group was to protect those convoys traveling from Naples to Anzio in Italy. After only a few months, however, the 332d was assigned to bomber-escort duty along with the 99th. The month before this change, 114 bombers had been lost, so there was an urgent need for their help.
Needless to say, the 332d and 99th welcomed the opportunity. By this time, the 99th had flown a total of 500 missions for a total of 3,277 sorties. So they were experienced, hardened troops. Their assignment included escorting bombers into Romania, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Germany, France, Spain, Yugoslavia, Italy, Bulgaria, and Greece.
It didn't take long for the bomber crews to learn that the "Red Tails," as they came to be known from the painted tails on their P-51s, were effective and brave. As Benjamin Davis writes in his autobiography, "They appreciated our practice of sticking with them through the roughest spots over the target, where the dangers of attack were greatest, and covering them through flak and fighters until they were able to regroup. They particularly liked our practice of detaching fighters to escort crippled bombers that were straggling because of battle damage."
Eventually, four black fighter squadrons and four medium bombardment squadrons - along with support units - were established. The bombardment squadrons did not serve overseas. But the fighter squadrons, flying hundreds of missions in the European "theater" of the war, never lost one of the bombers they escorted.
Under these more intense combat conditions, some of the escort pilots themselves were lost. Not all were killed, however. One man was strafing an ammunition dump and crashed when the dump exploded. Everyone thought he was dead, but he made his way back - unhurt - in a few days. Another pilot crash-landed in Yugoslavia, joined up with freedom fighters there, and was able to get back to the 332d seven days later.
Early in their training, members of the 99th - and eventually other black airborne units - realized that their assignment had much more than military significance. If they could show that black men did not fit the stereotypes held by white commanders, they would open up opportunities for other African-Americans who wanted to serve in the military.
And they accomplished their goal. By the end of World War II, these black pilots had won many individual medals as well as the highest possible commendations for their unit. The fact that it seems strange today to think of a black pilot as less capable than a white one shows just how far- reaching their efforts were. `Kidspace' is a place on The Home Forum pages where kids can find stories that will spark imaginations, entertain with a tall tale, explain how things work, or describe a real-life event. These articles appear twice a month, usually on Tuesdays.