Who Were the Tuskegee Airmen? January 20, 1945
The plane was not going to make it back to the airfield in Italy. US Airman Larry Fleischer shivered inside the B-24 bomber as it limped through the skies.
World War II had been raging for more than five years. In late 1941, the United States had joined with England, Canada, and other countries to defeat Nazi Germany and its allies.
B-24s played a major role in winning the war. Fleischer’s plane, however, had been hit while dropping bombs on a Nazi air base in Austria. Two of the engines were out. The bombing doors in the belly of the plane had jammed open. The wind was roaring in at sixty degrees below zero. Fleischer had already lost a boot trying to unstick the doors. Now, he was afraid he might lose his foot to frostbite. The plane needed to land soon. But where?
Down below, the Italian coast was fast approaching. Fleischer and the rest of the crew scouted for a safe landing area. It was the copilot who found their best hope. He spotted an airfield, but it was one that didn’t show up on any of their charts.
“We really were expecting it to be a German field because why wouldn’t it be on one of our maps?” Fleischer recalled. If that were true, the pilot and crew would be taken as prisoners. But there was no other choice.
The pilot carefully brought the plane in for a landing and saw that this was no German base. The runway was lined with American planes! Splashes of crimson paint marked these P-51 Mustangs as Red Tails. These fighter planes were famous for protecting American bombers in enemy skies. The Red Tails had saved Fleischer and his crew on more than one bombing mission. As another crewman put it, “They were our lifesavers.”
Fleischer and his crew were so relieved! They went out to greet the approaching soldiers, eager to finally meet the Red Tails face-to-face instead of in the air. What they saw was the surprise of their lives.
“These are all black guys!” Fleischer remembered thinking. “It was a complete shock!”
Why was it so surprising to see black pilots in 1945? Fleischer was a white guy from New York. His entire crew of ten men was white. The only black people Fleischer had ever seen in the army were cooks and waiters. Until now.
The Red Tails weren’t just any combat pilots. They were the famous Tuskegee (say: tus-KEE-gee) Airmen. They were the first airplane pilots of color ever in the US military. (Military
means the armed forces of a nation.) But to Fleischer and his all-white crew, their existence was “more secret than the atom bomb!” Chapter 1: Two Americas
By the end of 1939, World War II had broken out in Europe. The United States was not involved in the fighting yet. But the military wanted to be prepared, just in case. So the army had started the Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP) at many colleges and universities. (Civilians are people who are not in the armed forces.) The CPTP was created to teach young Americans how to fly planes. If the country joined the war overseas, there would be more pilots ready for battle.
But not everyone could join the CPTP. It was for white people only.
A 1925 military report said that black men were not as smart or as brave as white men. The belief was that black people couldn’t learn how to fly airplanes. But that was completely wrong!
Black people had been flying since 1917. An African American pilot named Eugene Bullard joined the French air force and fought against Germany in World War I. He won several medals for his bravery.
In 1920, a southern woman named Bessie Coleman went to France to learn how to fly. She became the first African American female pilot in 1921. Coleman returned to the United States, where she gave lectures and flew in air shows across the country. She wanted to raise enough money to start a flying school for African Americans. Unfortunately, in 1926 she was killed in a tragic airplane accident before that dream was achieved. Three years later, the Bessie Coleman Aero Club was founded in Los Angeles in her honor.
In May 1939, two black men named Chauncey Spencer and Dale White flew an old airplane from Chicago to Washington, DC. They wanted to encourage other black people to become pilots.
In Washington, they met with a senator named Harry S. Truman. (Truman would become president of the United States in 1945.) Truman saw the rickety old airplane the men had flown. He said, “If you guys had the guts to fly that thing from Chicago, I’ve got the guts enough to do all I can to help you.”
Harry S. Truman was true to his word. Later that year, Congress approved six Civilian Pilot Training Programs for black people. The most famous of these programs was at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.
Copyright © 2018 by Sherri L. Smith. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.