Still Flying High: Tuskegee Airmen

Article excerpt

FIFTY-TWO years ago, a select group of Black pioneers cracked the color line in the sky, writing one of the great chapters in aviation history and paving the way for integration in the U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Army.

Today, the Tuskegee Airmen, as they came to be known, are still flying high as they indicated at their 23rd National Convention, which was held in Chicago more than five decades after the first class graduated at the Tuskegee Army Air Base.

The organization, which has some 2,000 members worldwide, is, according to Maj. Gen. John F. Phillips, "a living legacy" that reminds Black and White Americans of a rich heritage and calls them to the new frontiers in aviation and science. National President Roger C. (Bill) Terry of Inglewood, Calif., says the organization's basic purpose is "to let our children and our children's children know that we did conquer the art of flying and that we were able to do things that the establishment said we couldn't do. They said at the beginning of World War II that Negroes couldn't fly. We proved we could excel. We triumphed over the odds and we want to tell our youngsters to prepare themselves and to use their God-given talents to do a whole lot of things. Not only fly airplanes, but to become doctors, lawyers or rock singers if they want to....but not to let anyone tell them that they can't do something."

Not only President Terry and Maj. General Phillips, the organization's second vice-president, but veterans from all over the world emphasized the convention's theme, "From These Roots Build Tomorrow." Chicago Judge Earl E. Strayhorn said, "It was a great source of pride and satisfaction to attend this convention and to see so many of the great veterans still going strong because we beat the people at their own game. We succeeded where they had set us up to fail, and we succeeded gloriously and magnificently."

As almost all convention speakers emphasized, the Tuskegee Airmen story began in 1941 when the U.S. Army was totally segregated and Blacks were barred from the Army Air Corps and other elite units. Pressure from Black organizations and an NAACP legal suit cracked the Jim Crow wall and laid the foundation for the legendary airmen, who trained at the Tuskegee Army Air Base near Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.

By March 1942, five of the first cadets had received their wings. One of the first graduates was B.O. Davis Jr., who would later lead the pilots to honor and acclaim. Under his leadership, the famed 99th Pursuit Squadron made an enviable record in the European Theater. White American bomber crews called the airmen "The Black Redtail Angels" because of the identifying red paint on their tail assemblies and because of their reputation for not losing bombers to enemy fighters as they provided fighter escort to bombing missions over strategic targets in Europe. The pioneer aviators returned home with 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses and Legions of Merit.

The 99th Fighters Squadron was joined by three additional squadrons: the 100th, 301st and the 302nd, in the 332nd Fighter Group. …