Saturday, 13 October 2012

The Tuskegee Airmen - the black WWII American fighter pilots who proved they had the Right Stuff

I can’t recommend the fourth episode in Lord Ashcroft’s series about WWII fighter aces, Heroes of the Skies, currently on Channel 5, highly enough. The whole series is terrific, but the tale of the Tuskegee Airmen, the all-black squadron which did an effective job protecting US bombers flying over Occupied Europe was genuinely stirring. The programme is available here (I have no idea if it can be viewed abroad – apologies if it can’t).

Led by Col. Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., a West point graduate (he’d been given the silent treatment by his fellow cadets), the Tuskegee Airmen, who formed the 332nd Fighter Group, painted the tails of their Republic P-47 Thunderbolts red, and did the same when they switched to P-51 Mustangs, and hence became knows as the Red Tails  - the title of a not particularly well-received film about them starring Cuba Gooding Jr., released earlier this year. (Larry Fishburne starred in an HBO film called The Tuskegee Flyers, broadcast in 1995 – it’s all available on You Tube, in bits, here.)

The 332nd received three Distinguished Unit Citations, and its pilots were awarded at least one Silver Star, 96 Distinguished Flying Crosses, 14 Bronze Stars, and eight Purple Hearts. The pilots were so effective (179 bomber protection missions, with only 25 bombers lost) that bomber squadrons (unaware that the pilots were black) would specifically ask for the “Red Tail Angels” to accompany them.

In the States, the admittedly hagiographic version of the Tuskegee Flyers’ story painted by books, movies and programmes like Lord Ashcroft’s isn’t without controversy: critics point out that no individual 332nd pilot shot down five enemy aircraft – the minimum necessary to termed an ace. And they never flew in the Pacific against Japanese Zeros (though I'm not sure how that's relevant - were the Germans worse pilots than the Japanese?). And, despite the propaganda, they didn’t have a major impact on the Allied war effort (but, then, they certainly helped). And  there were attempts for years to claim that the Red Tails never lost a bomber, when, in fact, they lost 25 (but those claims weren't made by the pilots themselves).

Look, I’m no military historian, and I’m coming fresh to a story that’s obviously very well known in the United States. But despite being generally sceptical concerning extravagant claims made for people on the basis of skin colour (you know – Afro-Caribbean soldiers won the Battle of the Somme, black nurses saved thousands of British soldiers in the Crimea, that sort of tosh), it does seem that the men of the 332nd made a genuinely impressive contribution, despite not exactly being welcomed with open arms by the military.

The abiding impression left by this latest instalment of Heroes of the Skies was the dignity, pride, articulacy and good humour of the survivors: tough old guys, and then some (and keen drinkers, smokers and gamblers in their prime, unsurprisingly). The programme featured a reconstruction of a captured Red Tail in a German prisoner of war camp with other American officers – all white - after he’d been shot down. I was expecting to hear how he’d been cold-shouldered and generally treated like dirt, but as the pilot himself reported, these “educated” men treated him “like any American”, displaying no prejudice whatsoever (i bet that wouldn;t have made it into the script if it had been written by a liberal rather than a prominent Tory). Heartening stuff. (Spookily, when he was captured, the pilot discovered that – thanks to Nazi spies operating within the US war machine – the Germans knew more about him and his colleagues – down to and including his school grades – than he knew about himself.)

While the black pilots were flying missions, there was no mention of them in the white media - presumably at the behest of the War Office? - and the crews of the bombers they were protecting had no idea they weren't white. But blacks knew all about them (see the poster at the top) – kids had pictures of the pilots on their bedroom walls and dreamt of growing up to fight with the 332nd. After the war, because the US military – like every government institution at that time – was segregated, when the airmen stepped off the boat in New York, they had to take a different exit from their white colleagues. Three years later, partly because of the Red Tails’ reputation, the US military was desegregated.

I was reminded of a story told by black American economist Thomas Sowell about his time as a conscript in the US army in the early ‘50s. He was good at repairing cameras, and, as his reputation spread he soon had everyone on the base bringing him their broken cameras to him – including the most prejudiced working-class rednecks you could imagine, which initially surprised him. After a while he realised that, at a time when there was no such thing as positive discrimination – only the opposite – if a black managed to build a reputation for being good at something, it meant he was superb at it.  At a time when the military resisted allowing blacks to fly planes, the Tuskegee Airmen knew they’d have to be  top-notch to be allowed to keep on flying (there were early moves to have them permanently grounded). And top notch they seem to have been.

Of course, there’s a political lesson in there for those who make a living out of “helping” blacks  – but this isn’t the place to draw it. Instead, I’ll end by saluting the chaps of the 332nd. Thanks, Red Tails, and God Bless.


  1. This documentary series has passed me by so I watched the episode about the Tuskegee unit and very good it turned out to be. Have ordered up "Red Tails" with Cuba Gooding Jr and "Glory" [1989] about the first all-black military formation operating within the Union Army in the Civil War [ Matthew Broderick, Morgan Freeman and Denzel Washington who was awarded an Oscar]. Once again, an interesting and informative post.

    1. I loved "Glory" - the three actors you mention all gave the best performances I've ever seen from them.

      Ashcroft's book of the series, "Heroes of the Skies", is pretty good, too.