The Tuskegee Airmen

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Podcast Transcript

During the Second World War, one of the most distinguished American aviation units was one that no one thought would even have existed when the war began. 

It was a unit of African American aviators who were trained at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabam. 

Over a thousand airmen were trained and served in the European theater of the war and were some of the most decorated pilots of the conflict. 

Learn more about the Tuskegee Airmen and their incredible story on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

The story of the Tuskegee Airmen really begins in the 19th Century. 

If you remember back to my previous episode on the Buffalo Soldiers, African Americans have fought with distinction since the Civil War. 

Despite initial reluctance by military leaders such as Ulysses S. Grant, they changed their minds after seeing how well black troops performed in battle. 

As Grant noted after the Battle of Vicksburg, “The negro troops are easier to preserve discipline among than our white troops, and I doubt not will prove equally good for garrison duty. All that have been tried have fought bravely.”

Black soldiers in the Civil War were awarded 18 Congressional Medals of Honor. 

After the war, African American soldiers continued to serve with distinction for decades. 

However, despite their service, they were not given equal treatment. Black soldiers were segregated and could not serve in integrated units. They were placed into all-black units with white officers. 

The soldiers in these units became known as Buffalo Soldiers, a name given to them by Native Americans.  

By the time of the First World War, the term Buffalo Soldier had gone out of fashion, but the army was still segregated by race. Much of this was on the instance of President Woodrow Wilson over the objection of his top General, Black Jack Pershing, who had commanded a unit of Buffalo Soldiers. 

World War I was the first conflict in which airplanes were used. While air combat was still fairly primitive, it was considered a very noble form of combat. 

Pilots were required to have a college education and were often members of the aristocracy in many of the European forces, such as pilots like the Red Baron. 

In the US Army, aviation was completely closed to all black soldiers. Despite many qualified volunteers, the Army refused to allow black pilots. Even black volunteers who offered to be aerial observers were turned down. 

While the Americans didn’t allow for black pilots, that wasn’t to say there were no black pilots during the war. 

Eugene Bullard was an African American from Georgia who flew in the French Air Service, and William Robinson Clarke was a Jamaican who flew for the British Royal Flying Corps.

The complete rejection of black pilots led to efforts over the next two decades by African American leaders to allow black pilots to fly in the military. 

They encountered prejudiced attitudes from military and civilian officials who believed that African Americans couldn’t learn to fly. 

Of course, there was ample evidence to the contrary. 

Bessie Coleman became one of the first African American female pilots. Unable to get a pilot’s license in the United States, she had to learn to fly in France.

James Banning became one of the first licensed black pilots in the United States and made a cross-country trip from Los Angeles to Long Island in 1932.

Cornelius Coffey established one of the first independent flight schools along with Willa Brown, the first black woman to earn a pilot’s license in the US. 

So, the idea that there couldn’t be black aviators was proven wrong, and the lobbying efforts of groups like the NAACP eventually paid off in 1939. 

Congress passed a bill allowing for the funding of black pilots as part of a wider program known as the Civilian Pilot Training Program.  

In 1940, the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama was chosen as the location for the training of black pilots. In particular, the Tuskegee Army Air Field was to be built in close proximity to the Institute. 

Here, I should briefly describe the importance and significance of the Tuskegee Institute. 

The Tuskegee Institute was founded in 1881 under the direction of Booker T. Washington. Washington was an African American educator, author, orator, civil rights activist, and advisor to several U.S. Presidents.

Under Washington’s leadership, the Tuskegee Institute focused on providing African American students with practical skills and trades to help them gain self-sufficiency and economic independence. Washington believed in education as a means for uplifting black Americans and emphasized the importance of vocational training alongside academic education.

By the start of the Second World War, the Tuskegee Institute had established itself as a premier center for the education of African Americans, and it was a natural location for the location of the air training program. 

In early 1941, the US Army created the 99th Pursuit Squadron, the first black aviation unit in American Military History, but it didn’t yet have any actual pilots. 

While this was a significant step, it didn’t change the fundamental reality that the US military was still segregated.  The black flying units were still kept separate from other units in the army and were led by white officers.

When the program was created, it was created with very high standards. It required a college education or previous flight training. It was assumed there wouldn’t be very many people interested. In 1940, the census only recorded 124 African American pilots in the country. 

However, once again, the expectations were wrong. They were inundated with qualified applicants, many of whom had already had some flight training.

Form Detroit Mayor Coleman Young, a Tuskegee Airman, noted that these standards were what made them so great. He noted, They made the standards so high, we actually became an elite group. We were screened and super-screened. We were unquestionably the brightest and most physically fit young blacks in the country. We were super-better because of the irrational laws of Jim Crow. You can’t bring that many intelligent young people together and train ’em as fighting men and expect them to supinely roll over…

On March 29, 1941, First Lady Elenor Roosevelt visited the Tuskegee Institute to inspect the program. She was taken on a flight with C. Alfred “Chief” Anderson, who was known as the Father of Black Aviation, and the chief instructor of the Tuskegee Airmen. The photos taken of the First Laday at the Institute helped popularize the program.

In June 1941, the 99th Squadron formally was moved to Tuskegee.

Tuskegee was unlike other air training facilities in the US Army. Because of the Army’s segregation policies, Tuskegee had beginning, intermediate, and advanced flight training, as well as training facilities for mechanics, navigators, bombardiers, and flight surgeons, all at one facility. 

When the war broke out, the airmen trained at Tuskegee weren’t brought into combat right away. Training continued, and more men were brought into the facility throughout 1942. 

The 99th finally was in North Africa in April 1943 and flew its first combat mission on June 2.  Their first mission was part of Operation Corkscrew, which was a prelude to the Allied invasion of Sicily. Their efforts resulted in the surrender of the garrison on the island of Pantelleria, a force of over 11,000. The forces on Pantelleria surrendered before Allied forces even landed due to the heavy bombardment they received.

On July 4, the 332nd Fighter Group was formed. A fighter group consists of multiple squadrons, and the 332nd was an all-black fighter group consisting of the 100th, 301st, and 302nd, who were still in Tuskegge.

The group became operational in October, and they went into combat in Italy in early 1944.

Throughout the rest of the war, the African American aviators, who became known as the Tuskegee Airman because they were all trained at the Tuskegee facility, established an exemplary combat record. The 332nd Fighter Group were known as the “Red Tails” for the distinctive red paint on the tails of their aircraft.

They were all fighter pilots. There were trained bomber crews, but they never ended up seeing combat before the end of the war. 

The Tuskegee Airman flew over 15,000 individual sororities. They performed almost every sort of mission possible during the war.

They flew combat missions to intercept enemy fighters. They flew bomber escort missions, a role in which they excelled. 

They flew ground attack missions against infrastructure targets, such as railroads, as well as against enemy ground units. 

They were also involved in attacks on naval targets.

The Tuskegee Airmen were collectively awarded three Distinguished Unit Citations, and individually, they were awarded 96 Distinguished Flying Crosses, 14 Bronze Stars, 744 Air Medals, 60 Purple Hearts, and one Silver Star.

They are credited with downing 112 enemy fighters in the air and 150 on the ground. Three of the planes they downed were three advanced Messerschmitt Me 262 jet fighters.

They are credited with 179 bomber escort missions, losing bombers only 27 bombers in seven missions, compared to an average of 46. 

Despite all of the accomplishments of the men of the 332nd, they still had to deal with an incredible amount of racism in the army. 

For starters, the Tuskegee Airman had to fly far more missions than white pilots did before being rotated out. White pilots were out after 50 missions where some of the airmen reportedly flew 136.

They were subject to racial slurs, and they were denied promotions and advancement that white pilots received. They were also denied access to facilities that other American soldiers were.

In 1945, an incident known as the Freeman Field Mutiny occurred when African American officers attempted to enter the whites-only officers’ club at Freeman Field, Indiana. The event led to the arrest of over 100 African American officers for challenging segregation practices, highlighting the institutional racism within the military.

They were defended by a young future Supreme Court justice named Thurgood Marshall.

Despite everything, the Tuskegee Airman had a lasting impact on the military. 

Many of the white bomber crews developed a deep respect for the men who protected them in the sky. The idea that African Americans couldn’t fly had been demonstrably shattered. 

After the war, in 1949, the 332nd took part in the annual U.S. Continental Gunnery Meet in Las Vegas. It was a contest where aircrews would demonstrate their skill in shooting aerial targets, ground targets, and dropping bombs. 

The 332nd took first place amongst all Air Force units with a perfect score. 

In 1948, President Harry Truman issued Executive Order 9981, which desegregated the United States military. 

The decision was made, in no small part, due to the actions and valor of the Tuskegee Airman who disproved all of the stereotypes and prejudices held against them. 

The accomplishments of the Tuskegee Airmen didn’t end with the war. Many of them went on to have distinguished careers in many fields. 

As I mentioned before, Coleman Young went on to become the Mayor of Detroit from 1974 to 1994.

Four Tuskegee Airmen went on to become generals, including Benjamin O. Davis Jr., the first black general in the US Air Force, and Daniel James Jr., who became the first African American to reach the rank of four-star general in 1976.

Charles McGee remained a pilot, flying a total of 409 missions between World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. 

Other men went on to become judges and business leaders. 

In 2007, the Tuskegee Airmen were collectively awarded the Congressional Gold Medal. 

The legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen has consisted of postage stamps, multiple movies, plays, and television shows. The original airfields where the Tuskegee Airmen were trained are now the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site administered by the National Park Service. 

As of the recording of this episode, there are believed to be less than ten surviving Tuskegee Airmen, all of whom are in their late 90s or are over 100. 

The Tuskegee Airmen’s achievements were remarkable, considering the discrimination and segregation they faced both within and outside the military. 

Their success and professionalism under adverse conditions contributed significantly to the eventual desegregation of the U.S. Armed Forces, marking an important milestone in the fight for racial equality in the United States.

The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel. 

The associate producers are Peter Bennett and Cameron Kieffer. 

I would like to make a correction which many of you caught. In my episode on pearls, I said that the giga pearl was 27.65 kilometers when I obviously meant to say kilograms, as I was talking about mass. 

The giga pearl was 27.65 kilograms. 

But why stop with a correction? Why not make this a teachable moment?

What if there was a pearl that was 27.65 kilometers across?

For starters, as impressive as a pearl that size would be, the clam or oyster that produced it would be even more impressive. 

The average diameter of a pearl is about 8 millimeters, with a lot of variance within that. The average oyster is about 5 inches in length, and I know I’m mixing my units here. 

So, by my back-of-the-envelope calculations, an oyster would be 15 times the diameter of a pearl it would create on average.

That would make the oyster that produced a 27.65-kilometer pearl about 438 kilometers in diameter. That is further than the distance from Los Angeles to Las Vegas or from New York to Boston. 

Clearly, an oyster of that size would have to be a space oyster. It would be the size of several of the larger asteroids or smaller moons in the solar system. 

If, somehow, that space oyster let loose its space pearl, it would become an existential threat to the planet. It would be significantly larger than the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs. 

So, if there were a pearl 27.65-kilometers long, it could end life on Earth. However, if it did so, it would be the most luxurious extinction event in history. 

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