Published in the Delaware County (PA) Daily Times Monday, February 22, 2021
By Joseph Batory, Times Columnist
It is an ugly piece of USA history that had been buried in our history books, an era of racial discrimination for about 100 years after the Civil War until 1968.
Restrictive laws and policies marginalized African Americans by denying them the right to vote, hold jobs, get an education, and pursue other opportunities.
And, at the national level, the American military, as WW II broke out, was also racially segregated.
In September 1940, President Franklin Roosevelt’s White House responded to many lobbying campaigns for equal rights by announcing that the Army Air Corps would soon begin training Black pilots. And in 1941, this began to happen.
Restrictive selection policies were put in place. But, to the surprise of the military and our government, the Air Corps soon received an abundance of applications from black men who were professionally qualified and met the rigorous requirements for selection.
Their training site was the Tuskegee Army Airfield in Tuskegee, Alabama then under construction and home to the prestigious Tuskegee Institute, founded by Booker T. Washington.
The Tuskegee Airmen were segregated in training, so racial discrimination continued, but they somehow rose above it all. The Tuskegee Airmen soon became the first African American military aviators in the United States Armed Forces.
The Tuskegee pilots eventually fought and distinguished themselves with honor in WW II. They formed the 332nd Expeditionary Operations Group and the 477th Bombardment Group of the US Army Air Forces. And beyond pilots, the Tuskegee group included black navigators, bombardiers, mechanics, instructors, crew chiefs, nurses, cooks and other support personnel.
The program’s trainees, nearly all of them college graduates or undergraduates, came from all over the country. In addition to some 1,000 pilots, the Tuskegee program trained nearly 14,000 navigators, bombardiers, instructors, aircraft and engine mechanics, control tower operators and other maintenance and support staff.
The 99th Pursuit Squadron (later the 99th Fighter Squadron) became the first black flying squadron ever in the USA, and the first to deploy overseas (to North Africa in April 1943, and later to Sicily and Italy). In February 1944, the 100th, 301st and 302nd fighter squadrons arrived in Italy; together with the 99th, these squadrons of Black pilots and other personnel made up the new 332nd Fighter Group which began flying heavy bomber escort missions deep into enemy territory in July 1944.
The tails of their planes were painted red for identification purposes, earning them the enduring nickname “Red Tails.”
The 332nd flew its last combat mission on April 26, 1945, two weeks before the German surrender. By the time the war had ended, the Tuskegee Airmen had flown more than 15,000 individual sorties over two years in combat. Their impressive performance earned them more than 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses.
Beyond these heroic fighter pilots, other Tuskegee aviators also served with distinction on bomber crews in the 477th Bombardment Group, formed in 1944.
The Tuskegee Airmen were a critical a step forward in moving the nation toward racial integration of the military, which finally occurred when President Harry Truman in 1948 issued Executive Order 9981 desegregating the U.S. Armed Forces.
Finally getting the recognition they deserved, in 2007, more than 300 of the original Tuskegee Airmen came to Washington, DC, to receive the prestigious Congressional Gold Medal from President George W. Bush.
Subsequently, another fitting tribute occurred when all surviving Tuskegee-trained pilots and support crew were invited to attend the inauguration of the nation’s first African American president. Indeed, President Barack Obama, had stated that his “career in public service was made possible by the path heroes like the Tuskegee Airmen trail-blazed.”
The history of the Tuskegee Airmen is a historic episode of determination and courage and relentlessness in the face of great adversity.
Joseph Batory is the author of three books and nearly 200 published articles about politics, history, and education.