Tuskegee Airmen: Their Importance to American Military and Cultural History

It is a matter of the human condition that we are often guilty of hypocrisies. We are often confronted with the reality that we do not walk our talk and that often our behavior is not consistent with our ideals. And the result has always been rife with suffering and injustices of countless kinds, both at the individual and the societal level.

The founding documents of the American experiment in government articulated ideals of human government that were unlike any other before it. The Declaration of Independence recognized the inalienable rights that belong to all human beings, rights that come before government because they were given to all by the Creator of all human beings. The Constitution was then written as a means to promote and defend those rights and their corresponding duties. These documents, some of the most powerful political writings in all of human history, were rooted in the recognition of the Natural Law and its relationship to something called the “common good.”

Photo: YouTube/HISTORY

The reality was that those august documents bore a heavy burden of unresolved hypocrisy. While they wrote the noble words of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution with its Bill of Rights declaring the equality of mankind and the inalienable rights that belonged to all human beings, the Founding Fathers did not honor those words when it came to the issue of slavery. Because of their inability to confront that issue, only 71 years later, the nation was torn apart by the Civil War. After the Civil War and the passing of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments ending slavery, giving citizenship to the former slaves, and giving the right to vote to Black males, the lingering prejudices that were rooted in the institution of slavery lingered well into the 20th century, and the effects of racism are still with us.

Photo: YouTube/HISTORY

In the 1940s, the United States military, like the rest of the country, was segregated. WWII was already going on in Europe and in Asia, and they would soon bring the United States into the fight. Groups like the NAACP and other organizations – and even President Roosevelt’s own wife – were pushing for the military to open up more positions to Black people. As a result, President Roosevelt launched what was called the “Tuskegee Experiment” at the historically Black college Tuskegee University in Tuskegee, AL. On July 19, 1941, the flight school began with one officer and two cadets.

One of the original Tuskegee Airmen was Harold Hoskins. He remembered the program as an extremely intense experience. Ironically, he had also been in an integrated flight school before this in Texas. He said the program was “so rigorous you didn’t have time to think.” The candidates experienced heavy hazing, and, though most of the men in the program were only 18 years old, they knew that they bore a heavy burden to be successful in the program in order to promote the future of others who wanted to follow in their footsteps and become pilots.

Photo: YouTube/HISTORY

In the spring of 1942, the first of the Tuskegee Airmen were deployed to North Africa. They quickly began to build a reputation for themselves flying second-hand P-40s and the new P-51 Mustangs. Their tails were painted red, and, as a result, they began to be called “The Red Tails.” In Europe, they would get a reputation for being the best fighter protection for the major bombing efforts in northern Italy and in other areas of Europe.

992 men would complete the Tuskegee Flight School Program. Nearly half of them would be deployed overseas and would fly over 1,500 missions, destroying over 260 enemy airplanes. They would be awarded 344 Air Medals, 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses, 1 Silver Medal, and 14 Bronze Stars. Their motto was “Spit Fire!” And that they did.

Photo: YouTube/HISTORY

Sadly, they would come home to a still segregated society, but they would become instrumental in President Harry S. Truman’s effort to desegregate the Armed Forces in 1948. Many would go on to long and distinguished careers in the military. The “Red Tails'” commanding officer, Benjamin O. Bradley, Jr. would go on to become the nation’s first Black general. Daniel “Chappie” James, Jr., would become the first Black 4-star general in 1975.

In 1998, President Bill Clinton approved the designation of a portion of Monton Field in Tuskegee, AL, as the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site. And in 2007, President George W. Bush awarded the Congretional Gold Medal to 300 of the surviving members of the original Tuskegee Airmen.

Photo: YouTube/HISTORY

These young Americans who volunteered to become fighter pilots in the Tuskegee Airmen Program lived up to ideals of equality and citizenship in their patriotism and fideltiy to the nation as some of the most proficient American fighter pilots in WWII. They came home and honorably continued the fight against the ravages of segregation and racism with a nobility that was second to none. We honor them today for their courage and skill as WWII pilots and for their contribution to the efforts to bring the nation closer to the noble ideals expressed in our founding documents. The best way to honor them and their sacrifices at war overseas and here at home is to continue the noble efforts to end the negative effects of lingering racism wherever we see it.

When we, in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., no longer judge one another by the color of our skin but by the “content of our character,” we will begin to truly enjoy the great dream of the ideals expressed in our Founding Documents. And that is a dream that has always been worth struggling for.

People, Pets & Planet

Help where it’s needed most at GreaterGood for free!