Freedom Flyers: The Tuskegee Airmen of World War II

By J. Todd Moye | Go to book overview

1
The Use of Negro
Manpower in War

Wilson Vashon Eagleson II was “airplane-nuts” as a child. “I guess I have been interested in aviation all my life,” he said. “The first time I got to ride an aircraft I was ten or eleven years old. I think [my family] gave me $5 to go and take an airplane ride from one of the old barnstormers back at the country fair years and years ago. That must have been back about 1930 or ‘31. It was a biplane with an open cockpit, and for $5 you’d get a couple of circles of the field and land. I got to ride in one of those, and that was the end of it; that’s all I wanted to do the rest of my life.” He collected airplane trading cards obsessively, covering one wall of his bedroom with them. “Anything I could get my hands on concerning airplanes, I read about it.” Vash Eagleson dreamed of becoming a pilot himself, but as he grew older he began to understand that practical barriers would probably prevent him from realizing the ambition. “I guess you dream about something like that even though it seemed to be beyond [the realm of possibility],” he said. For one thing, “I knew that I would never be able to afford to learn to fly.” It occurred to him only later that his skin color was the greatest barrier of all.1

That obstacle fell in World War II, but only as the result of a concerted effort on the part of African Americans. Even before the United States joined the conflict, they had made full inclusion in the Army Air Corps (AAC) and the field of aviation generally a paramount goal. It would be difificult to exaggerate the wonder and romance Americans of the late 1930s and early 1940s associated with flying, or the importance many blacks placed upon creating opportunities for themselves in the career field of aviation. Pilot Harvey Alexander explained what made flight so attractive for African Americans: “I was aware of discrimination and segregation on the ground, how things were there. But up in the air, I was free as a bird because I was in control. I decided what to do and when to do it and how to do it. Each time I landed, that good feeling left me because I was back on the ground and back into the same old–same old. But I loved to take that plane off and get in the air. It was a different feeling altogether.”2

Pilots dominated the popular culture of the late Depression era; they were the heroes of boys’ books, comic strips, and moving pictures even as Americans thrilled to the real-life exploits of Charles Lindbergh and other record-setting aviators. Flying an airplane required technical skills, quick

-13-

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Freedom Flyers: The Tuskegee Airmen of World War II
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page ii
  • For Luke and Henry v
  • Contents vii
  • Prologue - "This Is Where You Ride" 1
  • 1 - The Use of Negro Manpower in War 13
  • 2 - The Black Eagles Take Flight 41
  • 3 - The Experiment 70
  • 4 - Combat on Several Fronts 98
  • 5 - The Trials of the 477Th 123
  • 6 - Integrating the Air Force 145
  • Epilogue - "Let’s Make It a Holy Crusade All the Way Around" 171
  • Acknowledgments 187
  • Notes 191
  • A Note on Sources 217
  • Bibliography 221
  • Index 233
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