- Last Updated on Wednesday, 23 February 2011 00:00
- Published on Wednesday, 23 February 2011 00:00
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It was 1973 and I was tagging along with my Dad when he was playing golf at the Army Navy Country Club. It was his usual golf buddies, but playing along that day, was Air Force General Chappie James. James was African American and had begun his flying career training at the Tuskegee Institute Army Air Corps Aviation Cadet program. This was an entirely segregated outfit. He didn’t fly with the black units in WWII, but stayed in the Air Force and flew against the Communists in Korea and in Vietnam. I remember they had jovial game, and along the way he asked me, repeatedly about how I was doing in school, and in particular, about my math scores. I said they were pretty good and he suggested I think about the Air Force as a career. Several of my Dad’s AF friends voiced approval, but I said, while the Air Force was “neat” I
liked the Navy. In a very fatherly way he shook his head and encouraged me to keep an open mind.
The beginning of General James career, and that of thousands of other African aviators, began with a simple sentence. The 1939 Army Appropriations Bill designated funds for the training of “Colored Pilots.” That’s all it said, but in those few words, unnoticed except by a few advocates who had quietly written it in the bill, it dramatically changed the future of African Americans in combat.
During the First World War a number of African Americans tried to join what was in the early days of military aviation called the Army Aerial Observer Corps. They were turned down flat. Flying in the military was a whites only business. One African American officer who had volunteered with the French as a pilot made application along with his fellow American officers, all whites, to transfer to the American forces. Their applications were approved, his was denied.
In 1939 the Tuskegee Institute, a leading college for African Americans in Alabama, already had a Civilian Pilot Training Program. The CPTP was the entrée to flying for many young pilots in World War II. However, the American military, even on the eve of war, didn’t want black pilots in the service. However, in 1941, bowing to public pressure the Army Air Corps set up the first training program for black aviators at Tuskegee. Still, many in the higher ranks of the Army Air Corps were anxious to let this whole idea languish in hopes that it would soon be forgotten. To start with, application standards for the African American program were set at a higher level than those required for other aviation officers. Nonetheless, the Army Air Corps quickly had more than enough qualified applicants.
Even while these new pilots qualified and received commissions, the military didn’t want to deploy these pilots to war zones. In the warped reasoning of the time, since there were no segregated aviation units, it would mean that blacks, as officers, could end up assigned to units where they would be commanding whites. The only solution was a separate black fighter squadron and many in the Air Corps were opposed to this notion. Though it’s probably more legend than fact, the story goes that Eleanor Roosevelt visited Tuskegee, went on a flight with one of the senior trainers, and was so impressed by these African American pilots that when she got back to Washington she asked the head of the Army Air Corps, General Arnold, why these men weren’t flying in combat? Arnold quickly deferred to the First Lady and ordered the formation a new Colored Squadron.
The 99th Pursuit Squadron deployed in 1943. Some 450 pilots in the unit would fight in North Africa, the Mediterranean and in Europe. They were, as is the case with most fighter pilots, aggressive, and when needed, fearless. During the war they flew 15,533 combat sorties even racking up the record for the longest escort mission ever flown in a P-51. However, one of their most noteworthy distinctions was one few units could match. None of the bombers they escorted were shot down by enemy fighters. That’s remarkable. Known by the brightly painted red vertical stabilizers on their aircraft, they dubbed themselves, the “red tails.” The bombers they escorted, manned by whites, gave them another name, the “red tailed angels.”