Tuskegee Air Museum
(part of an ongoing series about activities during my sabbatical)
The Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site at Moton Field, Alabama was our next destination. There we learned about the Tuskegee Airmen, as they are often called, an all African American fighter pilot squadron. Through videos and displays we were able to learn about the training the pilots undertook as well as the challenges they faced in a nation still segregated and deeply divided by Jim Crow laws.
Prior to World War II, the United States had not had any African-American military pilots. In 1939, thanks to advocacy by numerous civil rights groups, the US Congress passed an appropriations bill that funded the training of the first African-American pilots. This training eventually was centered at several airfield located near the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.
The result of the advocacy and training was the formation of the 99th Pursuit Squadron and 332nd Fighter Group. On numerous occasions, these units distinguished themselves and received many unit citations. The units were dubbed the “Red Tails” due to the distinctive markings painted on their aircraft. The Red Tails were arguably the most successful bomber escort fighter group, losing fewer bombers than any other group.
In spite of their success in the skies and service to the country, the Tuskegee Airmen were not immune to racism and segregation, including on the military bases. In spite of Army regulations prohibiting segregation of military bases, it continued on many of the bases. One example was the 477th Bomber Group (part of the Tuskegee Airmen, but never saw combat) who had been transferred to Freeman Field in Indiana. There they were subject to segregation both on and off the airbase, even to the point where local laundromats were unwilling to wash their clothing though those same laundromats did perform services for captured German soldiers.
After several Black pilots tried to enter the all-white officers’ club on the base, the commanding officer issued a regulation for strictly segregated housing, dining halls, and officers’ clubs, a regulation in direct contradiction to US Army Regulations. When many African-American officers refused to sign a statement saying they had read and agreed to the base regulation, they were arrested and placed in confinement under armed guard and guard dogs (again, compared to German POWs who were allowed complete freedom of movement). Eventually the Army Chief of Staff intervened and the men were released.
The stories of the courage of the women (support personnel) and men who were part of the Tuskegee Airmen was another inspiring journey. We learned about their intense training and all it took simply to become a fighter pilot. And on top of that their courage and determination in the face of racism and policies that excluded them based solely on the color of their skin - policies of the very country they were serving and fighting for.
We will remember,