WASHINGTON—The Tuskegee Airmen weren't supposed to succeed.
A 1925 study by the Army War College titled "The Use of Negro Manpower in War" concluded that African-American "men were cowards and poor technicians and fighters, lacking initiative and resourcefulness." It also called them a "subspecies of the human population."
So the Army Air Corps wasn't expecting much in 1941 when it began training a small group of African-American men to become pilots at Alabama's Tuskegee Institute, a historically black college.
What it got was one of the most successful flying squadrons in American military history. Shattering racist stereotypes, they flew more than 15,000 sorties over North Africa and Europe during World War II, destroyed more than 250 enemy aircraft on the ground and 150 in the air, and fiercely protected the American and Allied bombers they escorted on missions.
"We dared not fail," said retired Air Force Lt. Col. Charles W. Dryden, 86, who earned his wings at the Tuskegee program in 1942. "We dared not fail because the white folks could say, `See, we knew they couldn't do it.'"
On March 29, the United States will honor the Tuskegee Airmen by awarding the group the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian award bestowed by the federal legislature. About 300 airmen, out of the nearly 1,000 trained at Tuskegee, will attend the ceremony in the Capitol's rotunda, along with their families.
"It's sort of an open validation of the Tuskegee Airmen, that we fought stereotypes, overcame them and prevailed," said Roscoe Brown, an 85-year-old Riverdale, N.Y., resident who graduated from the Tuskegee program in 1944. "This is the ultimate when your nation recognizes you."
The gold medal, equivalent to the Presidential Medal of Freedom, is awarded to individuals or groups for singular acts of exceptional service and for lifetime achievement. The Tuskegee fliers will join a distinguished group of recipients that includes George Washington, Winston Churchill, Rosa Parks, the Wright brothers and former Secretary of State Colin Powell.
Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., and Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., introduced identical bills in the House of Representatives and the Senate in 2005 to give the airmen the congressional medal. The Senate bill passed in October 2005 and the House followed in February 2006. President Bush signed the bill into law last April.
Rangel introduced his bill because he knew about Tuskegee's legacy and personally knew former fliers like Brown. Levin's interest developed from Michigan's connection to the Tuskegee program. In its later years, some of Tuskegee's training shifted to Michigan's Selfridge and Oscoda fields. And former Detroit Mayor Coleman Young trained through the Tuskegee program as a navigator bombardier.
"I am proud to play a part in ensuring that the Tuskegee Airmen will now stand alongside Jackie Robinson, the Little Rock Nine and Dr. and Mrs. Martin Luther King Jr. as recipients of the highest honor that Congress can bestow," Levin said in a written statement.
The Tuskegee program was established under social and political pressure. President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered the creation of the African-American aviation program at Tuskegee Institute on the heels of a federal lawsuit. The NAACP filed it on behalf of a student at historically black Howard University and others, seeking to force the Defense Department to accept African-American pilot trainees.
The first Tuskegee class had 13 pilot candidates; five successfully completed training. Between 1942 and 1946, 994 pilots completed the program and received pilot wings.
The military wasted no time sending them into combat. They saw action in North Africa and Italy from April 1943 to June 1944, and earned two Distinguished Unit Citations.
"It was exciting," said Brown, who was one of the first U.S. pilots to shoot down a German war plane. "It was a challenge, it was fast, you didn't know what would happen. But we were prepared because of all the pre-flight training that we did at Tuskegee."
As word of their flying prowess spread, bomber squadrons would ask for the 99th to escort them on missions behind enemy lines, Brown said. Tuskegee Airmen assert that they never lost a bomber to enemy fire, though some historians dispute the claim.
In the air, the Tuskegee fliers were distinguished more by the color of their planes than the color of their skin. The red paint on the tail of their aircraft earned them the nicknames "Redtails" or "Red Angels" from fellow Allied pilots. German fighter pilots called them "Schwartze Vogelmenshen," which translates to "Black Birdmen."
The Tuskegee fliers earned respect in the air but still endured the indignities of racism and segregation on the ground. Salutes from white subordinates were rare. The African-American fliers were barred from using some facilities at U.S. military bases.
"We got sent to a base at Walterboro, S.C., and we saw German POWs (prisoners of war) do things on that base we couldn't do," Dryden recalled. "They could go to the theater and sit in the officers' club. The German prisoners could go to the PX (commissary) that we couldn't go to. I was seething."
In 1945, a group of Tuskegee pilots, all commissioned officers, attempted to enter an officers' club at a base at Freeman Field, Ind., defying a direct order to stay out. The incident resulted in 103 African-American pilots being charged with insubordination and ordered to face courts-martial.
The court-martial proceedings were dropped for 100 of the men, and two of the three remaining officers eventually had their charges dropped. However, one officer, Lt. Roger "Bill" Terry, was convicted. Fifty years later, in August 1995, Terry's conviction was reversed and his military record cleared.
"It wasn't pleasant back then—America was a racist country," Brown said. "When I got back from overseas, I had to sit in the back of the bus."
The airmen's exploits received scant attention from the general public, though they were well chronicled by the African-American press of the time.
The Army did produce a propaganda short about the group's exploits in 1945. It was narrated by an actor named Ronald Reagan. In 1996, HBO produced "Tuskegee Airmen," which starred actors Laurence Fishburne and Cuba Gooding Jr. "Star Wars" creator George Lucas announced last year that he intends to produce a movie about the Tuskegee Airmen called "Red Tails."
But a major motion picture pales in comparison to finally being honored by the United States government.
"History is a funny thing because a lot of people overlook the achievement of African-Americans in everyday life," said Lisa Daniels, coordinator for Unsung Heroes Living History Project in Sacramento, Calif., which highlights the contributions of African-American veterans. "So this is big and long overdue."
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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