(This is the 100th post in the history of the Dazzy Vance Chronicles and the first non-sports post.)
By Glen Sparks
U.S. Army Air Force pilots Charles Brantley, Roscoe Brown and Earl Lane battled Luftwaffe fighter jets and enemy machine-gun fire in the Berlin skies on March 24, 1945.
The three men all shot down a German plane that day, two years before Jackie Robinson integrated major league baseball and nine years before the Supreme Court handed down its ruling in Brown vs. the Topeka (Kansas) Board of Education.
The pilots flew P-51 Mustangs. They were part of the 99th Fighter Squadron, the Tuskegee Airmen, so-called because they did much of their training at Tuskegee Army Air Force Field in Alabama. The Tuskegee Airman were the first African-American military aviators in the U.S. Armed Forces. They comprised the 332nd Fighter Group (which included the 99th) and the 477th Bombardment Group.
The 355 Tuskegee pilots deployed overseas during World War II flew nearly 1,600 bombing missions. They shot down 112 enemy airplanes, destroyed 150 planes on the ground and damaged another 148, according to the National Museum of the Air Force in Dayton, Ohio. Pilots blew up 600 railroad cars and 40 boats and barges.
Luftwaffe pilots called the Tuskegee Airmen “Schwartze Vogelmenschen,” or Black Birdmen. Aviation buffs remember the Airman by a different nickname, “Red tails.” Tuskegee pilots painted the back ends of their P-47s, and later, their P-51s, a bright red as a way to identify each other in the air.
The Tuskegee program officially started in June 1941 when the Army still was segregated and Jim Crow laws (“Black only” schools, restaurants, hotels, etc.) ruled in many states. (African-American men who had wanted to fly in World War I were turned down.) Trained African-American officers at Tuskegee found it almost impossible to get a command slot. Gen. Henry “Hap” Arnold put it this way: “Negro pilots cannot be used in our present Air Corps units since this would result in Negro officers serving over white enlisted men, creating an impossible social situation.”
Tuskegee pilots finally flew their first combat mission June 2, 1943. The 99th attacked the Mediterranean volcanic island of Pantelleria, loaded with German and Italian troops and airplanes, as preparation for the Allied invasion of Sicily. Later, the squadron received a Distinguished Unit Citation for its combat over Sicily.
96 Distinguished Flying Crosses, 14 Bronze Stars, Eight Purple Hearts …
The success of the 99th encouraged Army commanders to send more Tuskegee Airmen into battle across Europe. By war’s end, Tuskegee airmen had earned 96 Distinguished Flying Crosses, 14 Bronze Stars, at least one Silver Star and eight Purple Hearts. Of the 355 deployed pilots, 68 were killed in action and 12 died in training and non-combat accidents. Also, 32 were captured as prisoners of war.
Several sources reported after the war that no bomber escorted by a Tuskegee pilot was ever lost to enemy fire. The no-loss myth held sway for many years. An Air Force researcher in 2007, looking at once-classified after-mission reports, found out that 25 bombers actually had been shot down while being escorted by Tuskegee pilots. Another study put the number at 27. Even so, the average number of lost bombers by other P-51 fighter groups at the time was 46.
Capt. Benjamin Davis, whose father was the Army’s first African-American general, commanded many of the Tuskegee combat missions. A Distinguished Flying Cross awarded to Davis for a mission on June 9 1944 noted how he “so skillfully disposed his squadrons that in spite of the large number of enemy fighters, the bomber formation suffered only a few losses.”
Davis eventually rose to the rank of four-star general in the Air Force. Two other Tuskegee Airmen became generals. The Airmen were collectively awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor in 2007. All told, the “Tuskegee experiment,” as the Army called it, produced nearly 1,000 pilots and 16,000 support personnel (navigators, bombardiers, mechanics, instructors, crew chiefs, nurses, etc.)
Two Airmen died recently, both 91, both in Los Angeles, both on the same day. No one knows how many of the Airmen are still alive. They are all in the 80s or 90s by now. One of the survivors, Grant Williams, commented on how things have changed over the decades. The Airmen, once subject to segregation, now get respect and adulation.
“Back then, nobody realized the significance of what we were doing,” Williams said. “Now, they seem to think we could walk on water.”