68th anniversary of D-Day, 6 June - Unsung heroes of the air
The story of the Tuskegee airmen, the first African American pilots, and their ‘double victory’ is now being told on the big screen. Jerome Monahan reports
To the victors go the spoils of war - including the privilege of recording their version of history. But with each passing decade more details emerge about some of the events, and people, whose stories were previously buried.
So it’s timely, as the 68th anniversary of D-Day approaches, that the tale of America’s black pilots, who escorted Allied bomber squadrons over Austria and Germany in 1944 and 1945, has been rediscovered and brought to a mass audience.
The story of the Tuskegee airmen - so-called because the squadron received most of its instruction in Tuskegee, Alabama - is told in a new film, Red Tails, directed by George Lucas, for whom it’s been a pet project for more than 20 years.
What makes the story of the 332nd Fighter Group so extraordinary is that it was the first time African Americans had been trained as military pilots. An earlier - and now infamous - military report in 1925 had ruled out using black people in this role because, it claimed, they lacked the “intelligence, ability or coordination” to fly aeroplanes. In the 1940s, black people were still subject in many parts of the US to the Jim Crow laws enshrining discrimination, and the military, too, was racially segregated.
Roscoe Brown, now aged 90 and living in New York, was chosen to be one of the select group of Tuskegee airmen. He remembers it vividly. The son of a Washington official in the US health service, he was a junior at the elite Springfield College in Massachusetts when he learned of the recruitment programme.
Brown recalls how most of the airmen were exceptional scholars and sportsmen, which led to fierce competition for places, but also created a fearsome esprit de corps among those who made the grade. “Of the 3,000 who trained, about 1,000 graduated. And of the 650 single-engine pilots, only 400 were chosen to go overseas and join the war,” he says.
“We were faced with the challenge of achieving a ‘double victory’ - not only against the enemy, but also against those at home in the military and beyond who were opposed to giving black people this kind of opportunity.
“We had an officer’s rank, but this was a big problem if ever we had to command white military personnel. And we often faced petty restrictions. On one occasion we were almost arrested for sitting in ‘whites only’ seats at the base’s cinema. The MPs (military police officers) sent to detain us were only put off when I suggested that having us court-martialled would be a terrible waste given the $75,000 it had cost to train each of us.”
Other instances of discrimination had more tragic results. At one base, black pilots were banned from the pool used by white officers and their families. This would later be bitterly recalled by pilots who saw black comrades drown in the Mediterranean after ditching their planes, because they could not swim.
Red Tails ignores the pre-war struggle that led to the creation of the Tuskegee project. But it does show how the project’s commanders and advocates had to battle the Pentagon for access to the best equipment, such as P-51 Mustang fighters, and the chance to fly in more strategically important missions.
The Tuskegee pilots proved to be most effective when they were deployed as fighter protection for the heavy bomber squadrons that in 1944 and 1945 were penetrating deeper into Germany, and encountering rigorous resistance from the Luftwaffe.
“We were nicknamed the ‘Red Tail angels’ because of our conscientious and effective protection,” Brown says. “While other fighter squadrons would peel off to engage in heroic dog-fights, we stuck with the bombers throughout. Given that each Lancaster bomber or its equivalent cost over $500,000 and carried a crew of 10 men, this made human and economic sense.
“We achieved one of the best records of the war: fewer than 25 bomber losses to enemy fighters out of the hundreds we escorted.”
As well as conventional enemy fighters, the Tuskegee pilots had to contend with attacks by Messerschmitt Me-262s, the first jet planes, one of which Brown shot down during a bombing raid over Berlin in 1945 - quite a feat given that it could fly at speeds 100mph faster than his Mustang.
“We viewed air combat as a competition, but we knew full well that war is hell and we were in danger,” Brown says. “We also knew that when we returned we would have to keep up the fight against discrimination, which is why so many of us earned college degrees and worked to achieve prestigious careers.”
The situation was different in Britain, where discrimination, although widespread socially, was not set in law. Hundreds of Afro-Caribbeans, Africans and Indians joined the RAF as pilots, bomber and ground crew - our own uncelebrated heroes.
The RAF removed the “colour bar”, or disqualification on grounds of nationality, in 1939. Prior to this, only “British subjects of pure European descent” could join up. But by June 1944, the air ministry was sending a confidential order to commanding officers stating: “Any instance of discrimination on grounds of colour should be immediately and severely checked.”
But some did experience hostility - and surprising reactions. One Jamaican airman, E.Martin Noble, recalled in 1984 for a recording at the Imperial War Museum that local people found him so exotic they would “shake his hand for luck”. One child wanted to touch him to check whether he had a tail.
Still, things were good enough that Guyanese-born and New York-educated novelist E.R.Braithwaite, who joined the RAF as a fighter pilot, chose to stay in Britain after the war was over, working as a schoolteacher in the East End of London. He later wrote To Sir With Love about his experiences.
Brown and his Tuskegee colleagues who returned to the US had to wait much longer for equality. “There’s a saying that excellence is the antidote to prejudice; so, once you show you can do it, some of the barriers will come down,” Brown says. “One barrier to fall quickly was segregation in the US armed forces - removed by President Truman in 1948. Unfortunately, the fight for broader civil rights in America would take us a lot longer.”
Jerome Monahan is a freelance teacher and journalist. His father, James Monahan, was a commando and second-in-command of X Troop, a secret specialist company of German Jews set up under the orders of Winston Churchill. He later carried out missions in enemy-occupied France in 1944 as a member of the Special Operations Executive.
Key stage 1: D-Day in pictures
Use Widgit_Software’s symbols to help pupils understand how Allied troops ended the Second World War.
KS2: Prejudice and people
Discuss issues of immigration and prejudice with the help of the People’s History Museum’s exhibitions.
KS3: Consequences of war
Explore how the Second World War was a turning-point for African Americans in a presentation from allenk.
KS4: RAF hits German targets
Use archive footage from Encyclopaedia Britannica to explore the RAF’s role in D-Day.
KS5: Aircraft restoration
Let the apprentices in the Royal Air Force Museum’s aircraft restoration programme help to illustrate the past for your pupils with TESGA’s video.
For all links and resources visit www.tes.co.uk/resources037