by Larry Grooms, special to Aerotech News
LOS ANGELES, Calif.—On the first national holiday commemorating the long wait between slavery’s official abolition and freedom’s arrival on a date remembered as Juneteenth, the Los Angeles–Las Vegas Chapter of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics related the legacy of America’s Tuskegee Airmen who fought racism at home and Hitler’s Luftwaffe over Europe in World War II.
By the end of the war on May 8, 1945, the war record of 21,000 Tuskegee program pilots, air crewmen and ground support personnel had set the stage for President Harry S. Truman’s July 1948 Executive Order 9981, ending racial segregation in the armed services, and reassignment to all integrated units the following year.
Keynote speaker and panelist for the two-part Zoom conference on June 19, was Harvey Hawks, docent at the Museum of Flight in Seattle, Wash. Knowledge from his 25 years as a museum docent stimulated lively and thought-provoking discussion by members of an AIAA panel, with topics ranging from historical truths, myths and misunderstandings to overlooked legendary exploits by Tuskegee Airmen recognized by their aircraft battle colors: The Red Tails.
Hawks is also a member of the Sam Bruce Chapter of Tuskegee Airmen, Inc., a non-profit dedicated to sharing stories of the original Airmen and inspiring future generations of African American aerospace professionals.
Hawks explained that black fighter pilot Sam Bruce, honored in the museum’s Personal Courage Wing, died Jan, 27, 1944, while flying aircover for American troops under fire by German forces on the Allied beachhead at Anzio, Italy. Although Black Americans fought in every American War, Sam Bruce was among the first to fight in the sky, and to give his life to his country.
From that and other examples, the panel was drawn into discussion of a pivotal question: Why would a young American Black man living in a time of overwhelming racial segregation, and facing discrimination in every part of daily life, volunteer to sacrifice his life for his country?
One answer to that question was cited from the book, Red Tail Captured, Red Tail Free: Memoirs of A Tuskegee Airman and P.O.W. The memoirs of African-American flier Alexander Jefferson detail how he bailed out over France in 1944 when his P-51 Mustang fighter was shot down while escorting bombers. Captured, he spent nine months in Luftwaffe Stalags where his Nazi interrogators demanded to know: Why would you fight for a country that hates you?
Jefferson’s answer was short and powerful: “Because it’s MY Country.”
Jefferson, a Detroit native who was one of 32 Tuskegee Airmen from the 332nd Fighter Group to become prisoners of war, explained in his memoirs that his response to the Nazi interrogators was based on the vision of America’s future as seen through the eyes of a patriot who fights to protect and fulfill the promise of American freedom.
Panelists agreed Tuskegee University, a segregated institution in Alabama, was selected in early 1941 as an unlikely location for an experiment to determine whether Black trainees would qualify to become combat pilots and aircrews. The historical view is that the War Department, opposed to even the concept but duty-bound to obey a directive by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, deselected institutions in more racially integrated areas and recommend a university in the Deep South. It was, some panelists observed, an early example of industry integration programs built on an expectation of failure for Black applicants.
Panelist Shelby Jacobs, who did groundbreaking work in optics for the Space Program, said his successes came in part because he recognized that some of his assignments were based on an expectation that he wouldn’t succeed. The theme was echoed by another panelist who noticed that his starting position’s primary purpose seemed to be corporate window-dressing for management integration. Panelists also remarked that an opposite practice was used in NASA’s early Space Program, where Black woman mathematicians made essential contributions despite working under discrimination in isolation and obscurity. Their struggle in the two decades after the Red Tails saga was made widely known in the movie, “Hidden Figures.”
At the dawn of Black history in aviation, Tuskegee’s first class in March 1942 had 13 cadets — five graduated. Contrary to public perception, cadets came from across the nation. Between 1941 and 1946, Tuskegee trained just under 1,000 Black pilots, about a third of whom were to fly bombers, mostly twin-engine B-25 Mitchells. But in the straightjacketed book of USAAF regulations at the time, separate-but-equal staffing and facilities for an air base was not only impractical, but wasteful and unaffordable. In the end, ranks of Tuskegee Airman eventually swelled well beyond officers wearing wings to more than 20,000 needed for bomber crews and all those who supported and maintained the bases to keep ‘em flying.
Learning to fly in PT-15, PT-19 and Stearman PT-17s, and given advanced training in the North American AT-6 Texan, the early Tuskegee fighter pilots transitioned to Bell P-39 Airacobras, later deploying in 1942 to North Africa where they flew Curtiss P-40 Warhawks in ground support missions for Allied troops fighting the Afrika Korps. Moving north to fly and fight in Sicily, Italy, and the underbelly of Europe, Tuskegee’s growing groups of fighters and bombers transitioned to the powerful and versatile P-47 Thunderbolt fighter-bombers and the USAAF’s air superiority P-51-C and D Mustang for long-range bomber escort missions.
Combat record numbers of the Tuskegee Airmen Red Tails speak for themselves:
• 700-plus War Department commendations,
• Air support and aerial combat in the 12th Air Force in Italy,
• Prior to joining the 332nd Fighter group, the 99th Squadron was awarded two Presidential Unit Citations (June-July 1943 and May 1944) for outstanding tactical group,
• The 332nd Fighter Group was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation for its’ longest bomber escort mission to Berlin on March 24, 1945. During this mission, the Red Tails destroyed three German ME-262 jet fighters and damaged five additional jet fighters,
• The 332nd Fighter Group distinguished itself in June 1944 when two pilots flying P-47 Thunderbolts discovered a German destroyer in the harbor of Trieste, Italy.
Only in two categories were the combat records of the Red Tails seemingly and perhaps inexplicably at odds. An unexpectedly low number of Red Tails pilots qualifying for the “Ace” title by shooting down five enemy aircraft seemed counter-intuitive to the group’s strong reputation for being among the best, if not the best, fighter escorts, losing the fewest bombers.
Pointing out that many American bomber crews actively requested that Red Tails be assigned to protect bombing missions, the answer came from knowing why bomber crews preferred protection by Tuskegee Airmen.
Bomber pilots noticed that when Luftwaffe interceptors were sighted, some of their fighter escorts would break formation to chase the incoming enemy. Bomber crews also noticed that other German fighters would quickly show up to attack while the U.S. escorts were off to score points in the race for Ace status. Red Tails, on the other hand, maintained their disciplined defensive stance to fend off attackers.
Although the Red Tails held the unmatched record of having one of the lowest loss records among all escort fighter groups, while being in constant demand for their services, reports that they never lost a customer were exaggerated. As panelists pointed out, bomber crews faced many threats beyond the help of escort pilots, including ground-based anti-aircraft fire, mechanical failures, inflight accidents and weather.
Panelist Karen Robinson, whose father was a Tuskegee Airman, recalled asking what moved him to fight for the United States, and he told her it was “a promise for you to be what you can be.” She said she is proud of the legacy her dad and others left by paving the way.
Michael Wallace, a 35-year career engineer and executive in aerospace, said he first heard of the Tuskegee Airmen when he enlisted in the Air Force. “They were the ones that helped to inspire me,” to go forward to earn engineering degree, Wallace said.
Several panelists commented that even children living in areas where the Red Tails are a part of local history aren’t being taught about the accomplishments of the unit.
For the future, the AIAA Juneteenth Seminar offered a salute to the U.S. Air Force’s new Boeing T-7A Red Hawk advanced jet trainer to replace the Northrop T-38 Talon. Employing new Air Force Digital Century Series design and testing concepts and capabilities, the T-7A builds off the legacy of the Tuskegee Airman, illustrated in the iconic Red Tail paintjob.
The AIAA Juneteenth panel segment was moderated by AIAA official Christianna Taylor, CEO of Intelligence Space.