Remembering America's first all-black squadron of military aviators
Retired Lt. Col. Herbert Carter, 91, points to miniature airplane models dangling like toy mobiles in the former Intelligence Room at the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site at Moton Field in Tuskegee, Ala. (pop. 11,846).
During World War II, young black pilots-in-training were tested at the airfield on how well they could identify enemy planes. "You were supposed to say, 'Well that's a P-24, that's a P-38,' just from the silhouette, because when you're up there flying that's really all you see," says Carter, who saw his share of enemy planes as a Tuskegee Airman escorting bombers overseas.
"The problem was no commander from England to Burma wanted this all-black fighter squadron," Carter says. "They said that the black man did not have the capacity to operate something as complicated as an aircraft, that he was subservient, he was lackadaisical, and he didn't have the physiological or psychological qualities to become an officer."
His uniform jacket crowded with medals, the soft-spoken Carter today resides in Tuskegee and is one of 295 known living Tuskegee Airmen. He frequently has spoken to school students, civic groups and military troops about his wartime experience of flying 77 combat missions in Europe and North America and overseeing 32 airplanes in the 99th Fighter Squadron in Morocco and Italy. He describes how in April 1943, during its first two weeks of operation, the squadron shot down 18 German aircraft and damaged another eight.
"We lost six men in the endeavor," he says, "but finally destroyed the myth that the black man could not fly and fight."
Fighting on two fronts
The Tuskegee Airmen were America's first black military aviators and were recruited by the U.S. Army Air Corps between 1941 and 1946.
Blacks previously were barred from flying in the military. However, two years after Nazi Germany invaded Poland, a shortage of pilots prompted President Franklin D. Roosevelt to create a "Negro pursuit squadron" whose members would train in Tuskegee. The men were trained as single- and twin-engine pilots, navigators and bombardiers, practicing for combat at Moton Field and the Tuskegee Army Air Field five miles away.
The "Tuskegee experiment" involved an estimated 16,000 to 19,000 airmen, including mechanics, parachute riggers and support staff. Nearly 1,000 pilots graduated; 450 of them were deployed for combat duty overseas.
Known as "red tails" for the bright red paint on the tails of their planes, the airmen flew 1,578 missions throughout Europe, the Mediterranean and northern Africa. Eighty-four were killed, and 32 were downed or captured as prisoners of war.
Every member of the "experiment" understood that they were fighting two wars: one against fascism abroad, the other against racism at home. It would be 1948 before President Harry S. Truman desegregated the U.S. Armed Forces, allowing black people to serve their nation alongside whites.
"The Tuskegee Airmen's greatest legacy is not the myth of never losing a bomber to enemy aircraft," says U.S. Navy Senior Chief Petty Officer Craig Huntly, 49, a historian in Los Angeles. "It is essentially the fact that they fought for the right to fight for America."
Today, their story is told at the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site, which opened in 2008 at Moton Field. But the most memorable testaments to their heroism are the veterans themselves.
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