Note to readers: As a decision nears on where the F-35 Lightning II will be based, the Montgomery Advertiser plans to publish occasional features about the process and its parts. This week, we offer a look at the historical significance of the Tuskegee Airmen, also known as the Red Tail Squadron. Coming next week, the economic impact of the military in Montgomery and the F-35 if the program comes.
TUSKEGEE — The legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen can never be erased.
Defying stereotypes and overcoming racism, the first African-American fighter pilots, also known as the Red Tail Squadron, fought in World War II, providing top cover for American bombers in Europe.
“We dispelled the biases, generalizations and in some cases, racist ideas that the black population wasn’t physically qualified to serve the country and not morally, mentally or otherwise capable of doing anything technical,” said 97-year-old Charles McGee, who fought for the 302nd Fighter Squadron in WWII.
Their efforts ultimately led to U.S. President Harry Truman signing Executive Order 9981 to integrate the armed forces in 1948.
Tuskegee Airmen expert Daniel L. Haulman believes a thesis written by Col. Noel F. Parrish, a white commander of Tuskegee Army Air Field, which closed in 1946, inspired Truman’s call to action.
“His whole thesis was arguing that having black pilots and white pilots segregated made no sense, that they were equals and there’s no reason to separate them,” said Haulman about Parrish, who he said wrote it while attending Maxwell Air Force Base’s air command and staff college in Montgomery.
“It really was counterproductive. It was costly for the Air Force.”
However, a connection to the Tuskegee Airmen’s legacy in Montgomery is hanging in the balance.
Montgomery’s 187th Fighter Wing at Dannelly Field Air Guard Station is one of five finalists vying to take on the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II fighter jets. The other four are in Boise, Idaho; Jacksonville, Florida; Detroit; and Madison, Wisconsin.
Special section: Landing the F-35 Lightning II
Two sites will be chosen this year. According to Willie Durham, a member of the Montgomery Chamber of Commerce’s Board of Directors, the city needs the contract to avoid losing nearly 1,400 jobs.
“In this River Region area, we’re looking at an $8.2 million (economic impact),” said Durham, a State Farm agent. “That’s 1,000 (new) high-tech jobs.”
Having the F-35s would also honor the Tuskegee Airmen. In 2007, then-Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. T. Michael Moseley named the 187th wing’s 100th Fighter Squadron after one of the first Airmen squadrons. The 100th was the first black flying unit ever activated in Tuskegee where the airmen trained.
In conjunction with Air National Guard leadership, Moseley reassigned the 100th to the 187th. The 160th Fighter Squadron had been assigned to the 187th at Dannelly Field, but when the Air Force called for the inactivation of the 160th, the 100th replaced it.
The 100th could eventually become inactivated at Dannelly Field if it doesn’t land the F-35s. An Air Force survey team is scheduled to visit Montgomery in May.
“If we lose this program, that history and that lineage will be broken,” Durham said.
McGee, who flew in 409 total combat missions in WWII, Korean and Vietnam, could see Montgomery as a landing site for the F-35s. He is one of just 17 living Tuskegee Airmen who fought overseas. .
“We had a chance to get out and see some of the training,” said McGee, an Ohio native who now resides in Maryland. “I imagine in Montgomery that has the F-16 now would probably be one that would get the F-35 when they become available.”
Durham said the 30-year old F-16 Fighting Falcon is the oldest plane in the Air Force and will be discontinued by 2030.
“So this F-35 program is at least guaranteed to keep the community involved with the flight program for another 50 years,” he said.
Tuskegee Airmen Incorporated president Brigadier General Leon Johnson, 68, said the organization won’t lobby for any particular base.
“Several people have tried to pull us as an organization into that fight and that’s not a place that we belong,” Johnson said. “We’re not for profit. We don’t get into politicking the (U.S.) Department of Defense to do anything other than preserve the heritage and legacy of the organization.”
When asked if it’s important to keep the connection with the 187th, Johnson said that wing is not a Tuskegee Airmen unit. Johnson said TAI stayed out of the Air Force’s decision to move the 100th with F-16s from San Antonio to Montgomery in 2007.
“It’s not that we’re doing this as a detriment to the guard unit,” Johnson said. “This kind of thing has happened before within the Air Force structure and (the TAI) has let the Air Force make its own decision.”
Tuskegee Airmen established ties to Montgomery way before Moseley named a squadron after them.
The 99th Pursuit Squadron, the first-ever African-American flyer unit, was stationed at Maxwell Field for five days in November, 1941, in between leaving Illinois and arriving in Tuskegee.
Haulman said the Southeast Air Corps Training Center at Maxwell oversaw the Tuskegee flight program led by Col. Parrish. After WWII ended, Parrish and Colonel Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., who led the 99th Fighter Squadron, 332nd Fighter Group, 477th Composite Squadron and 332nd Fighter Wing, attended Air University at Maxwell.
Davis, who later became a general, played a colossal role in leading the Airmen and getting them to understand the importance of staying with the bombers. He died in 2002 at the age of 89.
“In 1944, when the Tuskegee Airmen were chosen, (the U.S. was) losing a lot more bombers than they should be losing,” said George Hardy, 91, who went overseas as WWII was winding down in 1945.
The white U.S. fighter groups would chase off German planes and stay after them to get a kill, but left the bombers without proper fighter cover and open to later German air strikes.
Davis changed the strategy – and had to change the Airmen’s mentality to make it work.
“It took a man like him to be able to handle the egos of the pilots, that particularly at that time had very, very strong egos,” said Airmen Ted Lumpkin, 97, an intelligence officer when the 332nd flew bomber escorts missions for the 15th Air Force P-51 groups.
As a result, the Airmen posted a near-perfect record for protecting bombers against the Germans. They eventually received praise from the white bomber pilots. Haulman said during 172 escort missions, the Airmen only lost 27 bombers. The average number lost among other 15th Air Force P-51 groups was 46.
“We ended up with the best record over there as far as bomber losses,” Hardy said. “Some of our pilots could have possibly shot down more (German) airplanes than they did, but they wouldn’t chase after them.”
The Airmen only lost bombers on seven missions and shot down 112 enemy aircraft, said Haulman, chief of Organizational Histories Branch of the Air Force’s historical research agency at Maxwell.
Describing it as a matter of life or death, Hardy said it was difficult to stand pat with German aircraft in their sights, but they were well trained under Davis, to the point that flying was almost secondary.
“Disciplined, but fair,” said Alexander Jefferson, 95, of the 332nd Fighter Group when describing Davis, who overcame racism to become the first black cadet to graduate from West Point in the 20th century in 1936. “Tough as hell, but fair. If it wasn’t for him, we would’ve never been successful.”
The Tuskegee Airmen ultimately saw it as a job and a chance to serve their country, but racism and false ideologies weighed heavily on their shoulders.
As late as 1925, an Army War College study referred to African-Americans as “mentally inferior subspecies of the human race,” with “smaller brains that weighed 10 ounces less than whites.”
Jerome Ennels, an archivist at the Air Force’s historical research agency at Maxwell, said the study also claimed blacks didn’t have the reflexes or courage necessary to be fighter pilots.
The Tuskegee Airmen invalidated and destroyed the ignorant study in WWII.
When remembering the Airmen, Ennels likens them to the bumblebee. Many once believed the insect had a body too heavy for its wings, that it couldn’t fly and, if it did, it’d use too much energy to fly far. “In spite of those beliefs that blacks couldn’t fly and fight, the Tuskegee Airmen proved that they could,” Ennels said.
Earning praise from a race that enslaved blacks and continued to discriminate against them during the war helped fuel the idea that things could change back home for African-Americans.
“There’s always hope,” Lumpkin said. “You assume if you do well that the people in the states would accept that, recognize that and it would improve race relations back in the states.”
Jefferson remembers returning to America, getting off the boat and hearing from a white officer: “Whites to the right and niggers to the left.” Despite their efforts, racism remained prevalent for blacks.
It took another document, inspired by the Tuskegee Airmen, to integrate the U.S. military.
Before Brown v. Board of Education ended segregation in public schools in 1954, and Rosa Parks ignited the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955, Truman signed Executive Order 9981, ordering the military to integrate, in 1948.
In 1947, when the Air Force became independent from the Army, Haulman said its first secretary, Stuart Symington, was a friend of Truman. Symington and Truman were from Missouri. Familiar with the Tuskegee Airmen and Parrish’s thesis, Symington supported integrating the military. Haulman, though not totally positive about it, believes Symington helped Truman write Executive Order 9981. Haulman couldn’t find an official document showing it, but can justify connecting the two.
“Symington was familiar with Noel Parrish’s thesis and with what the Tuskegee Airmen had done,” Haulman said.
That is a major reason why historian Joseph Caver gives the Tuskegee Airmen credit for sparking the modern-day civil rights movement.
“I tend to believe that it’s the returning veterans after WWII that was the major catalyst in change as far as civil rights is concerned,” said Caver, an adjunct professor at Alabama State University who wrote The Tuskegee Airmen (2015, NewSouth) with Haulman and Ennels. “The desegregation act is monumental.”
Jefferson believes the civil rights movement began as early as the days of abolitionist Frederick Douglass during slavery in the 19th century, but agrees the Tuskegee Airmen made a mark on it.
“(During public speaking), I ask the audience, what happened six years later?” said Jefferson, who was a prisoner of war in Germany for nine months during WWII. “Everybody looks at me real funny and say, ‘What the hell are you talking about?’ The desegregation of education. See how things progress?”
A total of 84 Airmen lost their lives during WWII, said Edward Pennell, senior park ranger at Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site.
The Airmen sacrificed their lives for a country that disregarded them.
“They were fighting, not because of how they were treated, but for what they knew deep down America stood for – life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” Pennell said in an email.
Caver mentioned two Tuskegee Airmen – Richard Harris and Luther Oliver – who made significant contributions to the civil rights movement in Montgomery.
Harris became a pharmacist and operated Dean’s Drug Store, which became a meeting place for blacks refusing to ride the bus during the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-56.
Caver said Oliver ran an auto repair shop and served on the boycott’s transportation committee.
Oliver later became one of the first four blacks elected to the Montgomery City Council in 1975.
Those victories are all part of the Tuskegee Airmen’s legacy. Their place in history is eternal. Still, having the F-35s come to Alabama, where it all began, could help extend that reach for many generations.
“You’re talking about pride,” Durham said. “It’s something we all can be proud of.”
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