Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The Tuskegee Experiment

By Mark W. Danielson

George Lucas’ movie Red Tails has brought well-deserved acclaim to the Tuskegee Airmen. Besides being an action-packed movie, Lucas wanted to commemorate the significance of the so-called “Tuskegee Experiment”. As stated on the Tuskegee Airmen, Inc. web site, this was "the Army Air Corps program to train African Americans to fly and maintain combat aircraft. The Tuskegee Airmen included pilots, navigators, bombardiers, maintenance and support staff, instructors, and all the personnel who kept the planes in the air.”In World War II, few black Americans wore a United States uniform. Thankfully, a few Army Air Corps commanders saw through the inferiority labels and created the Tuskegee Experiment to prove blacks could fight for their country as well as any American. The resulting 332nd Fighter Group not only shattered the stereotype, they set a new standard of excellence.My generation, only one generation later, thought nothing of having black pilots and Weapons System Operators in my fighter squadrons. They had two names -- pilots and WSOs, and that mentality has never changed. As an airline captain, I pay no attention to my first officer’s race or gender. What matters is that they perform their job, and as one would expect, most pilots at this level perform exceptionally.The Tuskegee Airmen accomplished far more than having one of the best combat records in World War II and winning the “First Ever” Air Force Top Gun competition at what is now Nellis AFB in 1949. Racial bias hid this fact until 1995, and its associated trophy remained hidden in the Air Force Museum’s archives until 2004 when civil rights activist Ms. Zellie Rainey Orr tracked it down and rightfully demanded that it be displayed. Yes, the Tuskegee Airmen broke the stereotype that blacks were somehow inferior. Since then, most people realize that regardless of race, creed, color, and religion, people are capable of doing whatever they set their minds to. To me, the success of the 332nd Fighter Squadron comes as no surprise me because these people survived every humiliation and double-standard imaginable during their training, and the end result was a cohesive, highly disciplined fighting force known as the Red Tails. As for Hollywood’s portrayal of some of its characters, realize that the movie industry requires a romance story to appeal equally to men and women. TOPGUN was no different, and when my buddies tried to correct the producers on certain inaccuracies, the response was, “We’re not making a documentary.” So with this in mind, I strongly encourage everyone to see Red Tails. As executive producer Lucas said, “I have only one agenda, and that’s for a lot of young people to see this movie.” I agree that young people can gain inspiration from its characters and outstanding flying scenes. Red Tails may also help those unfamiliar with the racial struggles of the time understand what these brave men and women underwent to serve their country. It goes without saying that today’s full-integration policy in the military is the direct result of the Tuskegee Experiment’s success. Photos courtesy UC Riverside archives. For those interested in learning more, check out the Tuskegee Airmen site:


Jaden Terrell said...

Yes, Mark. They were remarkable and courageous men. Thank you for honoring them with this post.

Mark W. Danielson said...

Thanks, Beth. My AFROTC unit was named for General Daniel Chappie James Jr., a Tuskegee Airman who remained an instructor pilot throughout the war. He went on to fly combat missions in Korea and Vietnam and later became the top black officer in the Air Force.

As the personnel director for Sacramento, my father hired three former Tuskegee Airmen, all of which were outstanding.

The only boundaries people know are those that are imposed on them. The Tuskegee Airmen reinforced that.

Jackie King said...

I so enjoyed the history and the pictures in this post. What exceptionally brave men these were. Thanks for great information.

Mark W. Danielson said...

Thanks, Jackie. Sadly, many of the Tuskegee Airmen never saw their appreciation. As with most WWII veterans, they are passing away quickly. In 2007, 60 earned new wings. In 2008, 31 more were lost. 35 more went in 2009, 30 in 2010, and 20 more in 2011. Thankfully, all are remembered for their contributions.