Thursday, March 21, 2013

Heroes, Not Icons

From the time at which both elementary schools and high schools began requiring classes which included “the civil rights movement” and “African-American History,” the famous ‘Tuskegee Airmen’ have become familiar icons alongside Rosa Parks, W.E.B. DuBois, Frederick Douglas, and a host of other famous Black Americans. But aside from the vague notion that these airmen were pilots in WWII, the typical student has no detailed understanding of what they actually did, despite the fact that both documentary films and a Hollywood movie have portrayed their exploits.

Historian William Percy provides insight into who the Tuskegee airmen were, and what they did; this knowledge can transform them from one-dimensional characters in a rehearsed civil rights narrative into the three- or four-dimensional historical individuals they actually were.

The “airmen” actually included commissioned officers, an important step for African-Americans in the Army (no separate Air Force existed until after WII). Their exemplary work in a ‘semi-integrated’ setting, as Percy calls it, gave the Air Corps a head start over the other branches of the military in achieving further integration. The Army itself had operated in a highly segregated manner since the administration of Woodrow Wilson; soldiers recruited from the South, who had already lived under ‘Jim Crow’ laws, were familiar with the system, but soldiers from the North – both white and black – were sometimes surprised by the system, having attended, e.g., the integrated high schools in many Northern cities. Having served and fought in ‘semi-integrated’ settings, returning to segregated Army bases in the U.S. was a rude awakening for some of the airmen.

Higher officers in the Army Air Force, the AAF, acknowledged the accomplishments of the Tuskegee units – the 99th Fighter Squadron and the 332nd Fighter Group – but saw the integration of African-Americans into AAF as a wartime necessity or a political statement, and seemed willing to return to the segregated status quo antebellum.

One reason for the success of the 332nd was their leader, Colonel B.O. Davis, Jr.; he was a West Point graduate and was praised by his superiors, General Eaker and General Dean Strother. The airmen compiled an impressive record; measured by nearly any statistic – number of missions, number of enemy craft shot down, number of medals earned, etc. – they performed as well as, or better than, other units. The only criticism made of them was that they might have more aggressively pursued enemy fighter planes; but this criticism fails to consider the fact that, to make such pursuit, they would have had to leave the bombers which they were escorting, and giving escort was their assigned task at that moment. Thus it was that no bomber escorted by the Tuskegee pilots was ever shot down by enemy fire: this unique statistic is one of their main claims to fame.

Various specific anecdotes serve to illustrate the heroism for which these men became known. On a sixteen-hundred-mile raid to Berlin, bombers were to be accompanied by three different fighter groups: one group for the first third of the mission, another group for the second third, and a final group for the remainder of the flight. The Tuskegee pilots were assigned to the middle third, but when the final group of fighters failed to appear at the rendezvous point to takeover escort duty and relieve the Tuskegee pilots, the Tuskegee fighters continued protected the bombers for the remainder of the mission, including shooting down at least three ME-262 jet fighters, a feat which earned them a Distinguished Unit Citation.

Among the white officers and white airmen of AAF, there were certainly some whose racists attitudes emoted a strong distaste for working with the ‘Negroes’ – the majority of white fliers, however, respected and appreciated the work of Black airmen and officers. High-ranking AAF officers, including even General “Hap” Arnold, visited the bases and praised the ‘Negro airmen.’ Aside from friendliness and praising the skill of the Black pilots, the crews of the American bombers realized that the Tuskegee airmen had saved their lives in many situations. When a bomber suffered either mechanical difficulties, or damage from enemy fire, and had to separate from the formation and return to its base alone, it was especially vulnerable to German fighters, and especially thankful for the protective escort of the Tuskegee fliers.

The 332nd Fighter Group was formed in January 1942 and arrived in Europe in January 1944. Initially, the 332nd was equipped with P-39 fighter which had inferior technical features, and the missions given to the 332nd were “boring, routine patrols.” Bombers needed protection, however, and the 332nd was re-tasked to escort them, was re-equipped with technically superior P-47 aircraft, and earned its fame protecting the vulnerable B-17 and B-24 bombers.

The 99th Fighter Squadron was older than the 332nd, having been founded in July 1941. The 99th trained at Tuskegee on a variety of non-combat ‘trainer’ aircraft – the BT-13 and the AT-6 – and was then equipped with P-40 fighters. The 99th arrived in Africa in April 1943. (The reader may recall a TV series from the 1960’s called “Rat Patrol” which captured the flavor of the North African Theater of combat.) After training briefly with the 27th Fighter Group, the 99th was assigned to the 33rd Fighter Group; the 99th was with the 33rd for only May and June of 1943. The officers of the 33rd alternated between ignoring the 99th and belittling it; while individual officers, and most of the airmen, of the 33rd were supportive of the 99th, the commander set a hostile tone. The 99th was reassigned to the 324th Fighter Group in June 1943. The 324th was somewhat better to the 99th; the intelligence officers of the 324th “fully credited the black squadron for its escort and ground-support missions over Sicily,” but the 324th seemed more puzzled than anything else at the African-American airmen, and largely ignored them, keeping them segregated and sending them on their own missions apart from the white squadrons. It was during this time, over Sicily, that the 99th got its first confirmed kill, and the highest officers visited the 99th to congratulate: General Eisenhower, General Doolittle, Air Vice Marshal Coningham of the RAF, and other superstars of air power. This demonstrated that the Tuskegee fliers were being supported and watched by the top-level officers, even if the mid-level officers seemed oblivious or antagonistic. (“Ike” Eisenhower also integrated ground troops during the Battle of the Bulge, long before President Truman’s postwar executive order to integrate the armed services.)

In July 1943, the 99th was reassigned back to the 33rd Fighter Group. This time, the 33rd was less hostile to the 99th; instead, the 33rd merely ignored the 99th. In October 1943, the 99th squadron was reassigned to join the 79th Fighter Group. Of the groups to which the 99th had belonged so far, the 79th was by far the best. The 99th was one of four squadrons in the group, and duties were assigned equally. In January 1994, the 99th had twelve confirmed kills in two days, establishing a level of performance comparable to any other unit. While with the 79th, the men of the 99th enjoyed a collegial and professional relationship with the white fighter pilots of the 79th’s other three squadrons; this marks a high point in race relations. Also while with the 79th, the 99th began upgrading to P-47’s to replace their P-40’s, a signal that highly-placed officers had confidence in the 99th and were investing in its future. In April 1944, the 99th was reassigned back to the 324th, were they were largely ignored by the white officers but continued to perform excellently, particularly in support of U.S. Army ground forces in Italy. In June 1944, the 99th was reassigned to the 86th Fighter Group. After June 1944, the 99th was assigned to the 332nd, where it would remain for the duration. With the 332nd, the 99th would have new duties as bomber escorts.

This dizzying summary of the 99th’s history and 332nd’s history suffices to demonstrate two points: first, that the Black pilots performed well; second, that some white officers were hostile and some were friendly. In any event, the Tuskegee fighter pilots certainly earned their places in the history books.

The value of William Percy’s article is this: it transforms vague icons into concrete data. References to “The Tuskegee Airmen” appear in every standard presentation about “the civil rights movement” and about “African-American History,” but remain merely imprecise allusions. It is a disservice to these warriors to allow them to remain icons; such symbols are instruments, carrying little meaning in themselves, and used for whatever goals various rhetoricians may choose. The Tuskegee Airmen were not merely symbols or metaphors, but rather real men, servicemen who saw combat. They are not merely tokens to be used in a game of civil-rights discourse; they protected their loved ones and their nation. Only a presentation of quantifiable and observable data, such as William Percy gives us, confirms that the Tuskegee pilots were and not merely figments in the imagination of some political leader who creates exhibitions and lectures for schoolchildren. The Tuskegee airmen were flesh-and-blood heroes.