Academic journal article Air Power History

Tuskegee (Weather) Airmen: Black Meteorologists in World War II

Academic journal article Air Power History

Tuskegee (Weather) Airmen: Black Meteorologists in World War II

Article excerpt

World War II saw the breakthrough of blacks (1) into many areas of military service previously denied them. Although racial segregation allowed only a very few the full range of opportunities available, those who broke through the numerous barriers built a record of significant accomplishment. One area denied to blacks was service in Army Air Corps (later Army Air Forces (2)). (3) This denial extended to any support position in the Air Corps, including meteorological observing and forecasting. Creation of segregated flying units during World War II required they be manned by personnel fully trained in all support and technical specialties. How this process unfolded during and after the war illustrates some of the problems and contradictions created by the institutionalized segregation of the American military and society it reflected as the U.S. entered World War II.

Expansion of the Air Corps Weather Service

Although plans for U.S. Army expansion were already underway, it was the German invasion of Poland, on September 1, 1939, that signaled the threat of war as real. As the Air Corps started its wartime buildup, it was transitioning from a small and exclusive organization. An Air Corps officer, like most of the rest of the Army before World War II, was by custom a white male (4) and, by law, with few exceptions, a pilot. To appreciate the growth of the Air Corps into the Army Air Forces (AAF) during World War II, there were only 2,727 Air Corps officers serving, 2,058 of them Regular Army, in September 1939. By 1945, the number of officers assigned or detailed to the AAF peaked at 388,295, which included 193,000 pilots and almost 95,000 navigators and bombardiers trained since 1939. Overall, the AAF went from a force of approximately 26,000 in September 1939 to almost 2,400,000 in the fall of 1944. (5)

This growth reflected both the world-wide nature of the AAF's wartime responsibilities and the quantum increase in aircraft capabilities from a short-range daylight (and good weather) force to a transcontinental organization capable of operating at night and in all but the most severe weather. The rapid improvement in aircraft technology through the 1920s and 1930s was reflected in the greatly increased performance, range, altitude, and payload of aircraft.

Concurrent with growth of the relatively new science of aeronautics was a revolution in meteorology, one of mankind's oldest subjects of interest, both assisted with and driven by the advancement of aviation. The ability to plan military and civilian flying activities with more than a forecast based on scattered ground observations, verified by the observations of a "dawn patrol" observation flight, was becoming a commercial and military necessity. Even without aviation requirements, public and business interests demanded more accurate forecasts to avoid losses to commercial fishing and shipping, transportation, agriculture, recreation and emergency planning for forecasting extreme weather phenomena such as tornadoes, blizzards, hurricanes, and thunderstorms. (6)

Despite the increasing interest, growth in civilian and military meteorological programs was slow prior to the war. Developing academic programs to explore this evolving science was costly and the impact of the Great Depression made it more difficult. By 1937, only three American universities offered graduate degrees in meteorology. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) was first; Dr. Carl Gustav Rossby estimated that MIT spent "in the vicinity of $200,000 over the years from 1928-1938 to maintain such a department while, at the same time, the total tuition income probably did not exceed $25,000." The California Institute of Technology (Caltech) had created their meteorological department in 1933, and New York University (NYU) had established one by 1937. (7) As the Army's primary user of meteorological services, beginning in 1933, the Air Corps had sent a handful of pilots to MIT and Caltech for graduate work in meteorology, even though the Army's Weather Service did not move from the Signal Corps to the Air Corps until 1937. …

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