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On Clipped Wings

As America's first black military pilots, Tuskegee airmen faced a battle against racism

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As a piper cherokee 235 cut through a cloudless Alabama sky and began its descent, Moton Field emerged beyond a cluster of pine trees. Sixty years ago, several hundred young men began their training here to become America’s first black military pilots. Now, every Memorial Day, in an event that got its start more than three decades ago, ever-dwindling members of those pioneering World War II veterans return to Moton for a fly-in to remember their struggles and triumphs.

On the ground, 14 Tuskegee veterans made their way gingerly around the airfield, stopping to gaze fondly at a vintage Stearman PT-17, the type of plane in which they earned their wings. Located two miles from the city of Tuskegee, Moton Field today serves as a municipal airport. But it still exudes history. Behind a wire fence adjacent to the terminal, Moton’s vintage buildings—most notably a crumbling tower and a boarded-up brick hangar—await restoration as part of the National Park Service’s Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site, scheduled to open in 2008.

At last year’s reunion, Hiram Mann, now 82 and a retired lieutenant colonel, needed a cane to get around the airfield. But as a young pilot, he flew 48 escort and strafing missions in Italy. “You don’t know how nervous you are until the excitement is over,” he said, recalling how, during his first strafing mission, he chewed two sticks of gum to “a mouthful of little BBs.” Getting a chance to prove his mettle was not easy, however, and he still bristles over a letter he got from the War Department when he first applied to be a pilot. “It said, ‘We have no facilities to train Negroes.’”

Before World War II, blacks in the armed forces were typically assigned to kitchen duty, road construction and menial noncombat duties. As the conflict in Europe intensified, the NAACP and black newspapers urged wider African-American participation in the war effort. In early 1941, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who had heard about the school's civilian pilot program, visited Tuskegee Institute, a college established for blacks in 1881. She took a 40-minute flight with Charles Alfred Anderson, the African-American pilot who taught the course. A photograph of a smiling Mrs. Roosevelt in the back of Anderson’s Cessna appeared in newspapers across the country and gave aspiring black pilots reason to hope.

Later that year, the Army Air Corps opened Moton Field, four miles from the college, as a training facility for black men. The first 13 cadets lived in the Tuskegee Institute dormitories and took their basic flight instruction from Anderson.

Charles Dryden left New York’s City College to join Moton’s second class of cadets in late July 1941. He remembers the airfield as little more than “a flat meadow with no runways.” In 1942, Dryden would lead five planes on a bombing run over the Italian island of Pantelleria in the Mediterranean. In five months overseas, he would complete 30 missions. White officers “had no faith in us whatsoever,” Dryden, now 83, said at the reunion, “so it was a baptism of fire to discover what kind of warriors we were. We dared not fail.”

After successfully completing a mission, “there was a great deal of pride that you had measured up,” recalled retired Lt. Col. Harry Stewart, now 79. He graduated from the Tuskegee program in June 1944. “When I was a boy in New York City,” he said, “I dreamed of doing something daring and important when I grew up. We all aspired to fly.” While serving in Italy, he shot down three enemy aircraft on 43 missions, earning a Distinguished Flying Cross and an Air Medal.

After training for 8 to 10 months, graduates of the Air Corps’ Tuskegee program formed the nation’s first all-black unit, the 99th Fighter Squadron. Deployed to Africa in 1943, the 99th flew its first combat mission in June 1943. A month later, it downed its first enemy aircraft, a German Focke-Wulf Fw-190. But several months would pass before a black airman destroyed another enemy plane, prompting criticism from top brass that the unit “failed to display the aggressiveness...necessary to a first class fighting organization”; some officers recommended that the unit be removed from combat.

In October, the squadron’s African-American commander, Col. Benjamin O. Davis Jr., was called to testify before a War Department committee. “The 99th had performed as well as any new fighter squadron, black or white,” Davis argued, citing manpower shortages and unfamiliarity with the territory. “It would have been hopeless for me to stress the hostility and racism of whites,” Davis later wrote. “I had to adopt a quiet, reasoned approach, presenting the facts.” His calm defense saved the day—and the unit.

The 99th’s fortunes began to change on January 27, 1944. During a morning patrol of Italy’s Ponziane Islands, the squadron came to the aid of Allied ships under German fire, destroying six aircraft and damaging four in a fiery battle over the Mediterranean. The Tuskegee airmen successfully engaged the enemy again that afternoon and the next day, and continued to score a string of victories, finally silencing the critics. Time magazine called the unit “veteran, well-led, sure of itself.”

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