The story of the U.S. Army Air Corps’ all-black combat flying unit known as “The Tuskegee Airmen” has been told and retold by Hollywood film and television producers – most recently in the motion picture called “Red Tails”. In almost every case, the emphasis – and much of the attendant story-line – has been on the racial aspects of their unique place in military and social history. That would be understandable but for the fact that it almost entirely overlooks the legacy which those dedicated flyers left for us and for which they deserve to be most remembered.
It would be difficult, if not impossible, to tell their story without beginning with that of a figure who in my mind – as a proud Air Force veteran myself – is a larger-than-life military hero. Benjamin Oliver Davis, Jr. (1912-2002), was born in Washington, D.C. to a military family. During the worst of the “Jim Crow” era, he managed to attend university, and graduate from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in the top 15% of his class in 1936. During those four excruciating years, he ate and roomed by himself, and was completely shunned by his classmates with the approval of the staff, in the hope he would drop out. No one spoke to him unless absolutely required by duties for four lonely years. Cadet Davis persevered.
After receiving his commission, and serving in a number of assignments, he was sent to teach military history to students at Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute, a black campus and a socially “safe” assignment in the minds of military leaders not wishing to embarrass themselves with segregation-minded observers. At the time, with war raging and the battlefield calling, he assumed command of a training unit which would “experiment” with the controversial idea of black pilots. At that moment he became one of only two black field commanders in all the U.S. military: one himself, Major Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., the other Brigadier General Benjamin O. Davis, Sr. – his father!
The men selected to train at Tuskegee were educated, dedicated to the idea of proving their excellence, and crafted by Davis into one of the most highly-disciplined and self-confident flying units of WWII. They flew outdated Curtis P-40 fighters into combat without complaint and with considerable success. Eventually the original 99th Pursuit Squadron were combined with the 100th, 101st and 102nd Squadrons to become the 332nd Fighter Group of the 15th Air Force, with Colonel Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. commanding them. Flying out of Italy with newer and faster P-51 Mustangs, they were assigned to escort and protect – at all costs - B-24 Liberators and B-17 Fortresses on long missions deep into the heart of Nazi Germany, including one historic flight of 1600 miles to Berlin. They became famous to the bomber crews because of their disciplined commitment to defending the “heavies”, not gallivanting after enemy fighters to achieve individual victories. They were widely recognized because of the bright red paint of their spinners and tail assembly. The fact that these “Redtails” were flown by black pilots and kept flying by black ground staff was not widely known at the time.
On the ground, Davis’s firmly-disciplined men did not engage in conflicts with their white comrades-in-arms, cause problems in civilian communities, or above all act like “school kids” in the cockpit; they had too much self-respect to bring dishonor upon themselves or the commanding officer who had imbued them with the sense of pride which touched them for the rest of their lives.
In all, 996 proud Americans flew as Tuskegee Airmen in WWII, supported by 15,000 fellow crewmen on the ground. They flew more than 15,000 combat sorties and 200 escort missions, shooting down 111 German planes and destroying another 150 on the ground. In search-and-destroy missions, they wiped out hundreds of railroad trains, convoys and other ground targets, and sunk an enemy Destroyer at sea. On the final Berlin mission, they managed to shoot down three much superior Me-262 jet fighters; and in all of this, only 25 of the thousands of U.S. bombers they were sworn to protect were lost to enemy fighter action during the 332nd’s entire tour of duty.
Sixty-six Tuskegee Airmen were killed in action, while 32 became prisoners of war. Between them they received 150 Distinguished Service Crosses, 744 Air Medals, 8 purple hearts and 14 Bronze Stars. More importantly, these dedicated Americans loved and honored their country, the cause they fought for, and each other. And that is the way I choose to remember them.
After 34 years of active duty service, Benjamin O. Davis, Jr .retired as a Lieutenant General, later becoming a four-star General (as had his father). He was largely responsible for making the U.S. Air Force the first of the Services to end segregation.
Members of the 332nd Fighter Group (The “Red Tails”) attend a pre-mission briefing in Italy. Over the years, the surviving Tuskegee Airmen have remained close friends, holding regular reunions. They are in their 80s and 90s today. Another of their number, Daniel “Chappie” James retired as a 4-star General in 1975.