I will always remember the day when high school sophomore Drew Brashaw gave a noontime address to the Rotary Club in Dubuque, Iowa. There he stood at the podium, resplendent in his black hobnailed boots and jeans, a black Rage Against the Machine T-shirt, with a lock of blonde hair dyed green sneaking out from under his cap worn backwards with the word "Rancid" sewn on it. Drew was there to answer questions posed to him by the local Rotarians about the Tuskegee Airmen Research Project his class was working on, and to raise civic and financial support for the effort. The Rotary President phoned me the very next day, and brushed aside my attempted apology for the featured speaker's sartorial splendor by saying, "John, it was good for some of our members to see Drew, just like that, and hear the knowledge he was able to present. Sometimes you just have to look past the outer appearance and understand that these kids want to be a part of the community as well. We were all very impressed with your presentation, and we want the students to come back when this project is over to tell us how things went?
In August 1997, the students in my class had never even heard of the Tuskegee Airmen. Six months later, they had published a book on the Airmen, organized a public seminar, and raised funds for an aircraft restoration to honor the Airmen. What follows is an account of how an academically-oriented service project accomplished far more than all but a few ever would have thought possible. What follows is a chronicle of how a class of at-risk high school students and a group of aging veterans of World War II came together in the spring of 1998 to celebrate their accomplishments and make some history of their own. What follows is a true story of how an audacious dream became a thrilling reality.
The Tuskegee Airmen
This expedition began for me with a personal phone call in June 1997. Having visited the United States Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio, several years ago, I thought it the appropriate place to continue my research on the famous all-black air force escort squadron of World War II, the Tuskegee Airmen. This inspiring story of men who overcame institutional prejudice and established a remarkable war combat record has been woefully underreported; our school district's history textbook makes a passing reference to Tuskegee Institute, and its founder, Booker T. Washington, but mentions nothing about the U.S. Army Air Corps cadets of World War II whose names are also linked to that town in Alabama. From my own learning, I knew the Airmen persevered in an era when blacks were deemed incapable of operating, let alone flying, frontline aircraft. Their determination to learn how to fly and to fight for their country during World War II, if only to prove they had the capacity and the willingness to do so, has become the stuff of legend.
In 1944, when the all-black 332nd Fighter Group finally was assigned escort duty to protect 15th Air Force bomber crews who flew the deadly skies of Europe and the Mediterranean, they knew they had "arrived" By now, the German Luftwaffe was launching desperate and deadly fighter opposition to stop these bombing raids, whose targets included ball bearing factories in Schweinfort; the infamous oil fields of Ploesti in Nazi-controlled Romania; and Berlin itself. While some fighter escort squadrons in the rest of the air force flew too far away from the bombers in hopes of running up their tallies of aerial kills, others flew too close to adequately intercept incoming Nazi fighters.
In reading the stirring accounts of bomber crews who were escorted by the men of the 332nd, I learned that the "Tuskegee Airmen"--what they came to call themselves some thirty years later--quickly developed a respected reputation in the U.S. Army Air Corps for always being on time, and always being in the best flying position to protect the bombers. In over 1,500 total combat missions, the Airmen never lost one American bomber to enemy aircraft. …