“You’ve got to know inside that racism is wrong,” said Captain Roscoe C. Brown Jr. “You’ve got to know inside that you have the capacity like anybody else, and when given the opportunity, you will overcome.”
Captain Brown was one of the Tuskegee Airmen, a legendary group of black soldiers & flyers in World War II who paved the way for racial equality in the military. The Airmen are quickly passing on as we celebrate their service and sacrifice.
The Tuskegee Airmen were the first African American military pilots in the United States in the 1940s. There were 992 pilots trained at Tuskegee. With ground personnel, aircraft mechanics, and logistical personnel, there were over 14,000 total Tuskegee Airmen. Fewer than 300 remain alive today.
“At that time, it was thought that blacks didn’t have the ability to do complicated things or leadership. We knew that was wrong. World War II gave us a chance to go into combat units and do a first-class job so that the larger population would see how silly and stupid segregation was,” said Captain Brown.
Brown was one of three Tuskegee Airmen who shot down a German Me-262 jet, a jet much faster than the P-51s the Tuskegee Airmen flew at the time. The Tuskegee Airmen shot down a total of 112 enemy airplanes in World War II.
As Dr. Daniel L. Haulman of the Air Force Historical Research Agency wrote: “The Tuskegee Airmen proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that African-Americans were capable of flying the best of the Allied fighters to victory against the best of the enemy fighters. They earned an indelible place in the history not only of their service, but also in the history of their country and of the world”.
In an era when the country was widely segregated and black Americans were thought to be inferior to whites, President Franklin Roosevelt took the first step to change racial status in the military. While running for his third term in office, he promised to give black pilots the chance to train to serve in the Air Corps after pressure from Civil Rights organizations and the black press. A year later, the War Department invested in building a base for that training in Tuskegee, Alabama, where the Tuskegee Institute had already been training black civilian pilots. Following their training, pilots were assigned to the 99th Fighter Squadron, and later to the 100th, 301st, and 302d Fighter Squadrons of the 332d Fighter Group.
“Although the Army didn’t believe in our capabilities, they didn’t change the training standards, and that was a plus for us that we were able to meet the standards and perform successfully,” said Colonel Charles McGee, a Tuskegee Airman who was promoted to brigadier general shortly after his 100th birthday earlier this year. At the ceremony in the Oval Office, where the President pinned him with his single star McGee said, “don’t let negative circumstances be an excuse for not achieving.”
Brown and McGee are examples of the tenacity and perseverance of the Tuskegee Airmen, who have come to be one of the most highly respected fighter groups of World War II. The 99th Fighter Squadron flew 577 missions before joining the 332nd Fighter Group, and the 332nd Fighter Group flew 914 missions, for a total of 1491 combat missions flown by the Tuskegee Airmen.
It was thought during the war that in over 200 escort missions, the Tuskegee Airmen had never lost a bomber. Years later, a detailed analysis found that enemy aircraft shot down 25 bombers they escorted, a much better success rate than other escort groups of the 15th Air Force, which lost an average of 46 bombers.
The Airmen returned home from World War II to a country still rife with racial inequality. But their work eventually helped President Harry Truman issue Executive Order 9981 in 1948, which desegregated the U.S. Armed Forces and mandated equality of opportunity and treatment. While the military took time to put this into action, the Air Force was the first to achieve significant racial segregation in 1949.
The Tuskegee Airmen were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal by President George W. Bush in 2007 and their story was the basis for George Lucas’ 2017 film “Red Tails.” They stand out in history for launching opportunities for black soldiers to come, risking their lives for their country even at a time when they were denied equality at home.