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 Tuskegee Airmen: They were expected to fail

They Were the Cream of the Crop

     In 1941 with the world at war, a select group of African Americans traveled to Tuskegee, Alabama. They wanted to be part of an experiment to see if Blacks had the intellectual and physical capacity to fly an aircraft in combat. These young men traveled into the heart of segregation in the deep south. They dreamed of becoming the nation’s first Black fighter pilots. They were determined to become Tuskegee Airmen. They were the best of the best, the cream of the crop. They had degrees in such disciplines as: Electro Engineering, English Literature, Science, Biology and Pre-Law. (PBS movie) They were Du Bois’s “Talented Tenth.” The eyes of the Black community were upon them, and they did not want to disappoint. From the very beginning they were expected to fail (Homan & Reilly p. 15).

In 1925 under the direction of the War Department, the War College, devised a study examining the combat records of Black servicemen during World War I. The study was titled, The Use of Negro Manpower in War. This document was “preordained to be very negative.” It concluded that “Black men were cowards and poor technicians and fighters lacking initiative and resourcefulness” (p. 16). It further stated that the brain of the average Black man weighed only thirty-five ounces compared to forty-five ounces for the brain of an average white man” (p 17). In the eyes of the military, this document “proved” that Blacks should be kept segregated from Whites and were qualified only for menial, closely supervised jobs. This negative and biased report concluded that Blacks were “…a subspecies of the human population” (p. 17). This was the stance of the War Department concerning the use of Black men in the military.

The battle for African American men to enroll in military pilot training began as early as 1917 during World War I. When African Americans tried to enlist in the Air Services of the Signal Corps as Air Observers, they were told that “No colored aero squadrons were being formed at the present time…but, if later on, it was decided to form  colored squadrons, recruiting officers would be notified to that effect.” African Americans would not take “no” for an answer and in 1922,  African American leaders urged the War Department to establish Negro Army Air Force Reserve Units. The War Department’s response was “that since no Negro Air Units existed, there was no justification for the appointment of Negroes as flying cadets” (Francis & Caso p. 37).

African American leaders refused to accept the word no. In 1931, Walter White, Secretary for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and Robert R. Moton, President of Tuskegee Institute,  pushed once again for the acceptance of Blacks into the Army Air Corps for pilot training. And once again the response was a resounding no. The War Department argued that “from the beginning the Air Corps had selected men with technical and mechanical experience and ability, that the colored man had not been attracted to flying in the same way or to the extent of the white man”(p. 38).

White wrote in response “It is obvious that colored men cannot be attracted to the field of aviation in the same way or to the extent as the white man, when the door to the field is slammed in the colored man’s face…”(p 38). Because of the response of the War Department many leaders felt that only legislature through Congress would assure African Americans of acceptance into the Air Corps. In April 1939, Congress passed Public Law 18, authorizing the private training of military pilots by civilian schools. This law did not apply to Blacks or black schools (Homan p. 18).

Senator Harry Schwartz of Wyoming, introduced an amendment to Public Law 18, and when  the Appropriation Bill passed on April 3, 1939, it authorized the Secretary of War to

“…lend to accredited civilian aviation schools…designated by the Civil

Aeronautics Authority for the training of Negro Air Pilots…aircraft,

aircraft parts, aeronautical equipment and accessories… such articles

as may appear to be required for instruction, training, and maintenance

purposes” (Francis & Caso p. 38).

Passage of Public Law 18 seemed to be the victory for which Blacks had long fought; but the War Department, the C.A.A, and the Judge Advocate General were haggling over the interpretation of the bill. In the meantime African American organizations expressed that they would continue to agitate Congress for more legislation if the training of Negro Pilots was continuously delayed (p. 39).

In 1939 with war raging in Europe, the United States remained officially neutral; but as the war loomed President Roosevelt recognized the nation’s participation in the war as unavoidable. He ordered the nation’s military to prepare for war (Moye p 23). Brigadier General George V. Strong, called for “a civilian pilot training program a hundred times greater than that which existed in the past” (p. 23). The President was deluged with letters from Blacks seeking to enroll in the Civilian Pilot Training Program (C.P.T.P.).  Also, Presidents of historically black Wilberforce University, Hampton Institute, and Tuskegee Institute, offered their campuses as training sites (Moye p. 24).

During the hearing of the House of Representatives, on June 5, 1939; Congressman Louis Ludlow of Indiana offered an amendment that one million dollars of the eight million dollars proposed for expanding the training of military pilots and for materials, be set aside for the training of Negro Pilots. It was then proposed that a training camp be established at facilities “offered free of charge at Tallahassee, FL, and at Tuskegee.” Congressman Dirksen proposed that “this training camp be established at Tuskegee Institute, Alabama” He proposed that

“Tuskegee had a Reserve Officers Training Corps at the present time…

officered by a Negro First Lieutenant…a graduate of West Point, and

whose father…is the Colonel of the fifteenth Infantry in New York…”

(Francis p. 40, 41).

Dirksen was referring to First Lieutenant Benjamin O. Davis Jr., son of Colonel Benjamin O. Davis Sr., who would become Brigadier General B. O. Davis Sr. (Earl p. 33).

Tuskegee Institute was selected by the C.A.A. for Negro Pilot Training. On October 15, 1939, Frederick D. Patterson, President of Tuskegee Institute was notified that Tuskegee Institute had been approved for participation in the Civil Pilot Training Program (C.P.T.P.). While young African Americans were allowed to be trained as civilian pilots, they were not given the right to enter the air corps. African American leaders realized that Public Law 18 did not gain acceptance of Blacks as military pilots. The War Department simply ignored the act of Congress (p. 44).

When the Selective Services Act of 1940 was enacted by Congress, African American leaders and Congressmen proposed amendments to assure that African Americans would not be discriminated against and that the Act would not be misinterpreted as Public Act 18 had been.  African American leaders also sent a memorandum to President Roosevelt, Secretary of the Navy, Frank Knox, and Assistant Secretary of War, Robert P. Patterson. The memorandum proposed among other things: the use of available Negro reserve officers, training camps for work in all branches of aviation corps, and the selection of officers and enlisted personnel without regard to race. As a result of this memorandum, the Army informed the President that it planned to give Negroes “proportionate shares in all branches of the Army, in the proper ration to their population—approximately ten percent” (p. 47).

They Were Expected to Fail

      The Selective Services Act of 1940 required all branches of the military to enlist Negroes with no discrimination regarding race, color, or creed (Rose p. 12). The Army Corps took weeks to decide where to train African American Pilots as well as African American mechanics to service the planes. The Aeronautical University of Chicago was considered, but it’s all White student body was housed in the Y.M.C.A. The Air Corps wanted to keep the races segregated and therefore, decided not to utilize the University of Chicago (p 12).

The Air Corps Technical School at Chanute Field, Illinois, was chosen by the Air Corps as the training facility. But the Air Plans Division feared “disturbances and riots will probably ensue both at the field, and within the nearby communities” (p 13). Tuskegee Institute was suggested as the place to start training, Tuskegee had the capacity to house both mechanic service schools, and pilot training (p. 13). The Army Air Corps was a separate program from the Civilian Negro Pilot Training Program  established under Public Law 18 in 1939 (p. 13).

In December of 1940, The Army Air Corps submitted plans for an “experiment.” Tuskegee Institute was chosen for pilot training for the United States Army Air Corps.  The all Black 99th Fighter Squadron  would consist of thirty-five pilots, and 278 ground crew members (McKissack p. 42). White commissioned officers were to be used as instructors, inspectors, and supervisors until they could be replaced by qualified Black personnel (Rose p. 13). The announcement of the all Black squadron received mixed reviews from the African American community.

W. E. B. Du Bois editor of Crisis magazine praised the 99th Squadron as “a step in the right direction” while William H. Hastie, advisor to the Secretary of War, refused to endorse the “experiment” he said it was a “national disgrace that a program was needed to prove Black men could fly an airplane.” Hastie sent an official report to the Secretary of War pointing out that Blacks were not ten percent of the total military, and that keeping the military segregated was “demeaning and demoralizing” (McKissack p. 42).

In response to Hastie’s report, General George C. Marshall, the army chief of staff intimated, “Segregation is an established American custom. The educational level of Negroes is below that of Whites; the Army must utilize its personnel according to their capacities; and experiments within the Army in the solution of social problems are fraught with danger to efficiency, discipline, and morale” (p. 42). It was official, the Army did not intend to end its racist practice of segregation. Furthermore, it  did not believe that Black men were as intelligent as white men, and certainly not more intelligent than white men. Some historians, after examining Army documentation, concluded, that the Army hoped, even expected, the program to fail (p. 45).

In 1940, the average income of Blacks in Alabama was 60 percent less than that of whites, only 2 percent of Black citizens could vote, and the Ku Klux Klan was very active, many Black leaders were against this experiment being conducted in Alabama, the stronghold of racial intolerance (p. 44).

Also in 1940, according to the Census Bureau, there were 124 licensed Negro pilots in the entire United States out of a total population of more than 12 million African Americans. Out of these 124 Negro pilots, seven held commercial pilot ratings, none were in the Army Air Corps (Moye p. 28). According to a press conference released by the War Department on January 16, 1940, thirty-five Black men would be chosen under the Civil Aeronautics Authority form the Civilian Pilot Training Program to be trained at  the  99th Fighter Squadron of Tuskegee Institute (Holman p. 29).

      Benjamin O. Davis

     Benjamin O. Davis Jr. graduated from the United states Military at West Point in 1936. He ranked thirty-fifth in a class of 276. After  graduating from West Point, Davis was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant of Infantry and told to report to the Infantry Regiment in Fort Benning, Georgia. In March 1938, Davis was assigned to Tuskegee Institute to teach military science and tactics. In 1940 Davis’s father Benjamin O. Davis Sr., was nominated by President Roosevelt for promotion to the rank of brigadier general. In 1941 Davis Jr. was assigned as his father’s assistant and joined him in Fort Riley, Kansas. It was during this time that the Tuskegee experiment was initiated, and Brigadier General Davis Sr. received a letter from the Office of the U. S. Army Air Corps requesting that his son be released for pilot training and then command an all African American flying Squadron, the 99th Fighter Squadron (Earl p. 34).

The first class began with twelve outstanding cadets and one officer trainee (B. O. Davis), contrary to the official report that stated there would be thirty five pilot trainees. Of the thirteen, only five “made it” and received their wings. The “wash out” rate was 50-60 percent (McKissack p. 54). Years later through the Freedom of Information Act, Tuskegee Airmen discovered there had been a quota for how many Blacks were allowed to graduate. The phrase used to wash (cadets) out was,  “eliminated while passing, for the convenience of the government” (Jefferson p. 26). It is clear that many cadets passed  basic training but were eliminated for the convenience of the secret government quota system.

Active Duty

     During WW II Black airmen destroyed or damaged 409 enemy aircraft, including the last four victories of The Army Air Corps in the Mediterranean Theater of Operations. They flew 15,553 stories, and 1578 missions. Two hundred of these missions were as heavy bomber escorts. Not one of the bombers flying over the Rhineland was lost to enemy fighter opposition. Four hundred fifty Negro pilots of the 99th, 100th, 301st, and 302nd , Fighter  Squadrons, collectively known as the 332nd Fighter Group distinguished themselves according to the Presidential Unit Citation as

“displaying outstanding courage, aggressiveness, and combat

technique, the 332nd Fighter group reflected great credit on

itself and the Armed forces of the United States of America…”

(Rose p. 9).

The Tuskegee Airmen did not fail, they did not disappoint.

Double Victory

     When the Tuskegee Airmen returned home to America they found that race relations had not changed, they were still treated as second class citizens. But they had tasted victory and would not settle for second class citizenship again. Inspired by the contribution of the Tuskegee Airmen, President Harry S. Truman announced Executive Order 9981, calling for “equality of treatment and opportunity in the armed forces, regardless of race, color, or creed.” This act led to the end of segregation in the Armed forces and marked the beginning of the Civil rights Movement, according to many historians (George p. 29).

Many Tuskegee Airmen remained in the military. Benjamin O. Davis Jr. was promoted to the rank of Four Star General by President Bill Clinton in 1998. At the ceremony President Clinton intimated that  Davis is “…a hero in war, a leader, in peace, [and] a pioneer for freedom, opportunity, and basic human dignity” (George p. 28).

Annotated Bibliography

Earl, S. (2011). Benjamin O. Davis Jr. Air Force General & Tuskegee Airmen Leader. Mankato: ABDO Publishing Company. I used this source to cite the performance of Benjamin O. Davis Jr. when he graduated from West Point Army Academy. It also was used to explain how he was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant of Infantry  and told to report to the Infantry regiment in Benning, Georgia. From this source I also retrieved information concerning the promotion of Benjamin O. Davis Sr. to the rank of Brigadier General.

Francis, C. E.  & Caso, A.(1997). The Tuskegee Airmen The Men Who Changed A Nation. Boston: Branden Publishing. This source was used to explain the battle experienced by African American men to enroll in military pilot training as early as 1917. This source also is utilized to show how Afro American leaders urged the War Department to establish Negro Army Air force reserve Units. It also explains the amendment to Public Law 18 proposed by Senator Schwartz of Wyoming in 1939.

George, L.  (2001). The Tuskegee Airmen. New York: Grolier Publishing. This source was used to explain how the Tuskegee Airmen inspired President Harry Truman to announce Executive Order 9981, calling for equality of treatment and opportunity in the armed forces regardless of race, color and creed. It also details the rise of Benjamin O. Davis Jr. to the rank of a Four Star General.

Homan, L. M. (2001). Black Knights the Story o f Tuskegee Airmen. Greta: Pelican Publishing Company, Inc. This book was used to explain that from the very inception of the Tuskegee Experiment the cadets were expected to fail. It also explains the study conducted by the War College, that concluded that Black’s were a subspecies of the human population. This source also explains how Public Law 18 did not provide for the private training of black men in civilian pilot training schools

Jefferson, A. C. (2005). Red Tail Captured, Red Tail Free. New York: Fordham University Press. This source is used to explain how the Tuskegee cadets did not find out until years later that there had been a quota for how many blacks would be allowed to graduate. It also gives the explanation of the use of the phrase “wash out” used by the government to eliminate African American cadets from the Tuskegee Experiment, even though they passed the training/

McKissack, P. &. (1995). Red Tail Angels. New York: Walker and Company. This source cites how W. E. B. Du Bois editor of the Crisis magazine praised the 99th Squadron as a step in the right direction for allowing African American to be trained as pilots in the Tuskegee Experiment.. It also points out how General George C. Marshall the army chief of staff, expressed his feelings that the education level of the Negro is below that of whites.

Moye, J. T. (2010). Freedom Flyers The Tuskegee Airmen of World War II. New York: Oxford University Press. I used this source to show that in Alabama blacks earned 60 percent less than whites. It also explains that many black leaders were against the Tuskegee Experiment. This source also shows how in 1939, President Roosevelt was advised by Brigadier General Strong calling for a civilian pilot program a hundred times greater than that which existed in the past.

Rose D.D.S., R. A. (1982). Lonely Eagles The Story of America’s Black Air Force in World War II. Los Angeles: Tuskegee Airmen Inc. This source shows how the officers of the 99th Fighters were white officers to be used until they could be replace by black officers. It also explains the combining of the 99th, 100th, 301st  and 302nd Fighter Squadrons, as well as their collective successes during World War II.

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