“Red Tails,” a new Hollywood motion picture starring Oscar winner Cuba Gooding Jr. and Oscar nominee Terrence Howard is scheduled to be released Jan. 20 in theaters across the nation. It tells the story of the legendary Tuskegee Airmen, the first Black aviators in the United States Armed Forces. The AFRO reported on the adventures of the iconic airmen who despite battling prodigious racism and Jim Crow in America, fought for their country during World War II with incredible courage and honor and in the process shattered myriad racial stereotypes. In the wake of Hollywood’s depiction of the mythic aviators, the AFRO has unearthed the real story of the Tuskegee Airmen told through the stellar reporting of AFRO greats like Art Carter, Ollie Stewart and Vincent Tubbs.

Fighting for the Chance to Fly

Legend has it that Eugene Jacques Bullard, a Black American from Georgia fled racial oppression in the United States as a teen by stowing away upon a ship bound for Scotland.

He wound up in Paris and joined the French Foreign Legion in 1914 during World War I, and eventually flew as a member of the Lafayette Flying Corps in 1917, the same year the United States entered the war. Perhaps – Bullard thought – this was his opportunity to fly for the country he fled as a teen.

But, despite flying with courage and honor for the French, Bullard was not permitted to become a pilot for the United States Army because he was Black.

President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama greet Tuskegee Airmen prior to a movie screening of “Red Tails” in the Family Theater of the White House, Jan. 13, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

For more than two decades after Bullard’s rejection based on race alone, Black leaders in the United States fought for the right of Black military men to fight for their country in the air even as they fought in segregated forces on the ground.

Finally, in 1939 Congress passed a law that provided funding for the training of Black pilots. Further, in 1941 Congress forced the Army Air Corps – kicking and screaming – to form an all-Black combat unit.

But, despite Congressional mandates, segregation ruled much of the U.S. and all of the U.S. military.

“Although there are six colored National Guard units and two regular Army units in the East, not a single member will participate in the war games to be engaged in by 50,000 soldiers, August 13-27, around Plattsburg, N.Y.,” read an AFRO article, “War Games Lily White: U.S. War Dept. Ignores Us in Peace-Time Maneuvers,” dated July 15, 1939.

The story highlighted the frustration Black military men specifically and Black Americans in general felt over being permitted to fight and die for a country that subjected them to the indignity of Jim Crow.

Clearly, the biggest obstacle between Black American aviators and the wild blue yonder was the United States Army. The military establishment – completely segregated from top to bottom – had virtually no confidence that Black men could withstand the mental and physical rigors of flying.

Others argued Black pilots commissioned as officers stationed in the Deep South would never work.

“Negro pilots cannot be used in our present Air Corps units since this would result in Negro officers serving over white enlisted men creating an impossible social situation,” said General Henry “Hap” Arnold, commanding officer of the Army Air Forces.

The army created a testing and qualification process built purposefully to dissuade and eliminate as many Black applicants for the pilot training program as possible, but the military’s machinations failed miserably.

The Air Corps was swamped by an abundance of applicants, many of which had been a part of the Civilian Pilot Training Program, which the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama had participated in since 1939.

The Tuskegee program began officially in June 1941 although it had been operating since the end of 1940. And the burgeoning program got a major public relations shot in the arm by the First Lady of the United States, Eleanor Roosevelt, when she inspected it in March of 1941. She actually flew with the Black chief civilian instructor, C. Alfred “Chief” Anderson and reportedly declared following the flight, “Well, you can fly all right.”

Despite the high profile endorsement, the Tuskegee Airmen still couldn’t escape Alabama’s stifling racist mores.

“Race segregation is being practiced at the Army Basic and Advanced Flying School here, despite its bad effect on the morale of colored students who are being trained for combat duty with the Army Air Forces,” read the AFRO article, “Army’s Segregation Pattern Climaxed at Tuskegee Air School,” dated Jan. 2, 1943.

“The intolerant and patronizing attitude of some Southern white officers who are in command is said to be particularly irksome,” the story continued.

Not withstanding the military’s overt resistance, the Tuskegee program trained 996 pilots from 1941 to 1946 and 445 of those men were deployed overseas.

From this group emerged the Fighting 99th and the 332nd all under the banner of the “Red Tail Angels,” who flew more than 1,500 missions and dominated the skies during World War II with great valor and distinction.

VD Control School graduates at Tuskegee Army Air Field, April 1944. (AFRO File Photo)

Sean Yoes

AFRO Baltimore Editor