Black History Month: The Tuskegee Bomber Pilots of World War II

Many years ago, I came across a G.I. Joe doll that was out of the box and was a bit different than the usual G.I. Joes that came out over the years.

The doll was a pilot and was African-American, so I just figured it was a Tuskegee Airman figure that was made to honor their heroic ranks from World War II.

But this G.I. Joe did not sport the gear of a fighter pilot, so I did some research and the story unfolded about a group of Black airmen who ended up in a totally different training command, in the quest to make them bomber pilots.

The 477th Bombardment Group logo.
The 477th Bombardment Group logo. (Courtesy photograph)

Here’s a bit of background about how the 477th Bombardment Group came into being in 1943, when the need for more bomber pilots focused attention on the personnel available at the Tuskegee Institute, where they quickly enlisted some pilots for a new program.

In 1943, with the Tuskegee fighter pilot program underway, the Air Corps began to develop plans for a bomber group that would be comprised of ‘negro’ pilots. Still uncertain about the outcome of the Tuskegee Experiment, the Air Corps started to screen Black candidates for twin-engine training. Cadets received initial training in multi-engine Beechcraft AT-10s.

It soon became apparent that the addition of bombardier and navigation training programs, as well as the air traffic problem caused by the additional aircraft, would tax the limited resources available at Tuskegee. The Army Air Corps decided to schedule bomber pilot training in existing flight schools located in different parts of the country. These other fields had previously been used for white trainees only.

One such flight school was the Army Air Corps School located in Lincoln, Neb. Upon their arrival in Nebraska, the Tuskegee personnel were met with derision. Many white officers and enlisted men were quite vocal in their resistance to African American bomber pilots. However, the Tuskegee airmen were used to dealing with discrimination and were determined to prove themselves. Even though they were training with white pilots, their quarters were segregated and many of the off-hours amenities were off limits to them. They were obviously being subjected to a different standard than their white counterparts. Still, the Tuskegee Cadets graduated with the highest record ever achieved at the school. They moved on to advanced training in Buffalo, N.Y.

Tuskegee Cadets in training to become navigators.
Tuskegee Cadets in training to become navigators. (Courtesy photograph)

In October 1943, the decision was made to form the 477th Bombardment Group. Once formed, the new group would join the 99th Fighter Squadron in North Africa. Tuskegee Cadets were given transitional training in B-25s in preparation for the formation of the new bomber group. Though the Air Corps was in great need of pilots, it was unwilling to expand the Tuskegee training facility. It was also not ready to remove the barriers of segregation that prohibited Black pilots from using existing white-only training centers. This delayed the training of many qualified Black pilots and resulted in the 477th being activated just as hostilities were coming to a close, too late to see active service.

Still the 477th scored some lasting victories. The character, determination and perseverance displayed by the Tuskegee bomber pilots caused the Air Corps to reexamine and correct some of its long-held policies of segregation. In the end, many of these valorous Americans were promoted to positions of responsibility and authority. On July 26, 1948, President Harry Truman signed the Executive Order that integrated our nation’s armed forces throughout the world, and many of these amazing airmen stepped into positions that for generations had only been a dream of those who only wanted respect and to serve their country.

Bomber Crew in World War II
Like all the other Bomber Crews in World War II, they just wanted to serve and be with those that shared their passion for flying regardless of skin color. (Courtesy photograph)

I’m sure I speak for many when I state my belief that the accomplishments of the Tuskegee Airmen will always be one of the greatest stories of overcoming adversity with skill, knowledge and determination that this country could ever hope for. The Airmen serve as an object example of the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., when he looked toward a day when people “will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

When teaching future generations, we should seek to not judge a person by the color of their skin, but by their desire to be a leader and champion for all those who believe that greatness is in the ability to persevere against all odds.

Until next time, Bob out!

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