Flying Through the Barriers of Prejudice

THERE is a lot of talk in the newspapers these days about the military, how many soldiers are needed, and what types of defense -

ground, sea, or air - are most effective. But during World War II, such questions could be answered with one word: more!

As the war intensified, skilled troops of every type were needed. Yet one group of people, African-Americans, was being kept from combat simply because the military - and many civilians, too -

believed that black people were not intelligent enough to serve in combat or to fly airplanes. There were African-Americans in the armed services, but they were trained to maintain equipment and grounds, to be janitors, and to clean stables. Black women served in laundries, kitchens, and as cleaners.

African-Americans who joined the armed services continued to hope they would be allowed to serve their country in larger ways. One of the biggest obstacles was that many in the military believed no black man should be in charge of white men. This meant that even if a black man achieved high rank, the best he could hope for was to be an instructor or to be in charge of an all-black unit.

This policy began to break down during the buildup to World War II. For one thing, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People protested against the policy. Patriotic blacks wanted to serve - and even die for - their country. And, President Franklin D. Roosevelt wanted the support of black voters. These and other forces led to the creation of what was called ``the Noble Experiment'' - an all-black flying unit that has become known as the Tuskegee Airmen.

The men were called by this name because they trained at Tuskegee Air Base in Alabama. And their work was considered "experimental" because many of the military's white leaders believed that black men could not learn to fly an airplane. The reason for training the airmen was to find out if this was correct. Even though they faced much racism both on and off the base, the men were persistent and dedicated. It soon became clear that they could handle the airplanes just as well as any other new pilots.

Benjamin O. Davis Jr., the first black man to graduate from the United States Military Academy at West Point, was in the first group of trainees. He became the troop commander of the 99th Pursuit Squadron - the first airborne squadron composed of African-Americans.

After the men had completed their training, they were sent to Morocco, to a place in the North African desert that had a dirt strip they could use. A "dirt strip" is a runway that is not paved. Some are better than others, but they can be found even today in certain parts of the United States as well as in other countries.

The difficulty with using the dirt strip in the desert was that the soil was very dry and made huge clouds of dust when planes took off. Sometimes when the 99th flew missions, all twelve P-40 airplanes had to take off at the same time, because it would have taken too long to wait for the dust to settle between takeoffs. The unit was very fortunate that the pilots never had to abort any mission at takeoff, because it would have been impossible to land in the dust they stirred up.

At first their work involved dropping small bombs and strafing (attacking targets with machine-gun fire from low-flying planes). From this, they advanced to escorting bombers such as A-20s to their targets. Their purpose was to defend the bombers if any enemy aircraft attacked. Early in their service, the pilots were escorting twelve A-20s back from a bombing run when they were attacked by four German Me-109s. Eight of the 99th's planes stayed with the bombers to escort them safely back, while the other four drove off the enemy. They didn't always meet enemy forces on their missions, but when they did, they performed bravely.

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.

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.

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