I had the honour of being raised in the military which also means I have been privileged to meet some incredible veterans in my lifetime. One of them is Ret. Col. Richard Toliver of the United States Air Force. He graduated from Tuskegee Institute University in January 1963 with a Bachelor of Science degree in mechanical engineering. He was one of the first five African American F-4 Phantom II pilots to serve under the famed Tuskegee Airman Gen. Daniel “Chappie” James. He even participated in the Top Gun school. I wanted their history and his experiences to come from him, so I asked him to assist me in writing this newsletter and he graciously obliged. Much of this is from his book “An Uncaged Eagle.” I hope you enjoy.
My introduction to and tutelage under the legendary Tuskegee Airmen was one of the greatest experiences of my life. The mentoring, counseling, and teaching provided by these tremendous patriots would benefit me throughout my professional career. My personal life was also enhanced by the exemplary lives they lived before us as cadets and later as officers, husbands, and fathers. Many books have been written about these great Americans, but I want to give the following brief historical snapshot:
In 1939, the winds of war raged across Europe and the Far East, and the tentacles of tyranny threatened to enslave innocent, free people in those lands. If left unchecked, America would soon be in the crosshairs of those who intended to dominate the world. It was on the Tuskegee training field in Alabama where an historic milestone took place. A group of African Americans were preparing to prove their worth to the armed forces and a country who despised them. The Emancipation Proclamation was 75 years old, yet black people understood the ominous threat of war that bode ill for our nation. Despite the sacrifices and contributions of Negroes in building America, they were denied the opportunity to have a meaningful part in our nation’s preparation to defend itself at home and abroad. Due to harsh segregation and rigid social barriers, the doors to aviation, in particular, were tightly closed to African Americans. This was due, in large part, to an inaccurate and disparaging “Official Report” of the U.S. War Department in 1925 regarding the performance of Negroes during WWI. This highly biased report concluded that (1) blacks were inferior to their white counterparts in every discipline, (2) they lacked the intestinal fortitude for battle and were unreliable under fire, and (3) they were incapable of possessing the necessary skills to operate and master the complex military equipment employed in combat. Needless to say, the “experts” and national leaders of that time chose to ignore that black men and women had performed admirably and courageously in every conflict and skirmish since the Revolutionary War. It took an enormous effort by black leaders, the NAACP, Urban League, the black media, a few friends in the U.S. Congress, and many others to overcome a myriad of hurdles before two laws were passed to allow blacks to train in aviation. These laws led to the establishment of programs at certain colleges and universities to instruct Negro students to fly.
Tuskegee Institute (now University) was given prime status in 1940, since it was the largest of the Negro programs. Also, it was one of a few educational institutions to provide both flying and ground instruction at that time. The first aviation cadet class began in July 1941 and completed training nine months later in March 1942. Thirteen started in the first class. Five successfully completed the training: one of them was Captain Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., a West Point Academy graduate. The other four were commissioned second lieutenants, and all five received Army Air Corps silver pilot wings.
Those involved in these programs would become the first black aviators in the Army Air Corps, but would first have to endure the most difficult training the Army could throw at them. It was designed to drum them out. One tiny mistake, overlooked in other men’s training, was enough to have them kicked out of the Army. The program’s trainees, nearly all of them college graduates or undergraduates, came from all over the country. In addition to some 1,000 pilots, the Tuskegee program trained nearly 14,000 navigators, bombardiers, instructors, aircraft and engine mechanics, control tower operators, and other maintenance and support staff. Those who made it through would prove to be some of the best pilots in the Army Air Corps.
The “Tuskegee Experiment” took a great leap forward in April 1941 thanks to a visit by Eleanor Roosevelt to the airfield. One of the white instructors wanted to take her up for a flight, but she requested one of the black pilots: Charles “Chief” Anderson, then the chief flight instructor in the program. He took the first lady on an aerial tour and the photos and film of that flight helped publicize the program.
In April 1942, the Tuskegee-trained 99th Pursuit Squadron deployed to Allied occupied North Africa. They ran several sorties in second-hand P-40 planes, which were not nearly as maneuverable as their German counterparts. Eventually, they were transferred to Italy, along with many other black squadrons, to make up the new 332nd Fighter Group and given P-51 Mustangs, incredibly agile planes, to escort heavy bombers on raids deep into enemy territory. One of the most distinctive identifiers of the Tuskegee Airmen was that they painted the tails of their planes red, earning them the famous nickname “Red Tails.”
A popular myth arose during the war—and persisted afterward—that in more than 200 escort missions, the Tuskegee Airmen had never lost a bomber. The truth wasn’t uncovered until years later, when a detailed analysis found that enemy aircraft shot down at least 25 bombers they escorted. Nonetheless, that was a much better success rate than other escort groups of the 15th Air Force, which lost an average of 46 bombers.
Their legend does not live on in how many bombers and crewmen they saved, however impressive. It lives on in the fact that many white bomber pilots began to refuse to go on missions unless the Tuskegee Airmen were escorting them.
Four hundred and fifty of the pilots served overseas in either the 99th Pursuit Squadron (later the 99th Fighter Squadron) and the 332nd Fighter Group. These aviators flew over 15,000 sorties, destroyed or damaged over 400 enemy aircraft, destroyed over 1,000 military targets, and sunk an enemy destroyer. This record is unequalled by any other unit in the history of American combat. Sixty-six Tuskegee Airmen lost their lives and thirty-two others spent time as prisoners of war. Their awards included a Legion of Merit Silver Star, 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses, 744 Air Medals, 14 Bronze Stars, and 8 Purple Hearts.
Despite the outstanding performance of the Tuskegee Airmen, they returned home in 1945 to find the ugly and persistent barriers to racial equality. However, now armed with a renewed sense of determination, pride, and resolve, the Tuskegee Airmen girded up their belts and prepared to continue the war against racism and inequality. Many continued this struggle in the military. Others prepared themselves through education at every level–College and universities, technical and trade schools, and other institutions of learning. Throughout America, these patriots immersed themselves in making their communities, towns, and cities a better place in which to live. They continued their struggles as businessmen, doctors and lawyers, educators, farmers, and a host of other endeavors. Coleman Young, an original Airmen, eventually served as Mayor of Detroit for twenty years. Others held key roles in government at the city, state, and national level. Eventually, they forged ahead and opened the doors to aviation as pilots, administrators, aircraft controllers, and other related jobs.
Numerous key milestones can be attributed directly to the legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen. The most notable was the desegregation of the Armed Services in 1948. As a result of the performance of the Tuskegee Airmen and other African American units in WWII, President Harry Truman issued Executive Order 9981, an act to desegregate the armed services. Against the advice of senior civilian and military leaders, President Truman’s insisted that “the highest standards of democracy were essential in the armed services and that there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons, without regard to race, color, religion, or national origin.”
On March 29, 2007, another historic day of recognition took place. President George W. Bush presented the Congressional Gold Medal to approximately 300 Tuskegee Airmen or their widows at the U.S. Capitol rotunda in Washington, D.C. Although long overdue, this award was greatly appreciated by the Tuskegee Airmen, their families, and all who believe in equality, freedom, and justice for all of America’s patriots.
On January 20, 2009, approximately 180 Tuskegee Airmen responded to the personal invitation of President Barack Obama to attend his inauguration. Thus, President Obama, of African descent, acknowledged the crucial role the Tuskegee Airmen had in demolishing the barriers to progress for all minorities in America. The Tuskegee Airmen have continued to serve their families, communities, and the nation with the same dedication, determination, and passion for over 72 years.
The success of Tuskegee Airmen proved to the American public that African Americans, when given an opportunity, could become effective military leaders, pilots, and significant contributors to the nation’s defense. Their story also reflects the struggle of African Americans in achieving equal rights that helped set the pattern for nonviolent direct action in the 1950s and 1960s. Thus, the Tuskegee Experiment provided a significant benchmark in the annals of American History. Over time the Tuskegee Airmen would be called “The Red Tail Angels,” “The Lonely Eagles,” and other names. I call them the greatest flock of Uncaged Eagles ever assembled!
–Ret. Col. Richard Toliver