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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.”

By war’s end, some 450 of the 992 airmen trained at Tuskegee had served overseas, completing 1,578 missions, destroying 260 enemy planes and sinking a German battleship. In some 200 escort missions, they never lost a single bomber to the enemy. They earned 95 Distinguished Flying Crosses, a Distinguished Unit Citation and 8 Purple Hearts. There were sacrifices. Sixty-six Tuskegee airmen were killed in action and 32 became prisoners of war. “Their performance during the war influenced president Harry S. Truman to sign an executive order [in 1948] making integration in the military a reality,” said Col. Roosevelt Lewis, who runs the Tuskegee airport and helps keep the pilots’ legacy alive. “The Tuskegee airmen laid the foundation for the modern civil rights movement.”

In 1998, the National Park Service established the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site at Moton Field and in 2002 opened a temporary visitor’s center on a hill overlooking the airfield. The triple-wide trailer is lined with 1940s-era photographs of airmen in pressed khakis attending classes and at graduation ceremonies, and in bomber jackets, hoods and goggles, posing with aircraft as they prepare for war.

The park service’s $29 million plan to restore Moton Field and its historic buildings includes a 90-acre park and a hangar to serve as a museum, complete with some of the unit’s original planes. “We’re going aircraft shopping,” said Susan Gibson, then a park service representative. “There are quite a few of the originals out there. We’re doing extensive research into the minutiae; the paint, the plants, the bricks that were here; even the mortar will be the same.”

With completion of the restoration at least four years away and many of the Tuskegee pilots in their 80s, the long-range plan is a critical issue, Gibson said. “The airmen’s story without the airmen is a different story. That’s why it’s so important that we get this done quickly and beautifully.”

“We’re losing the guys fast,” said Dryden, who wrote about his war years in a 1997 book, A-Train: Memoirs of a Tuskegee Airman. He attends most of the fly-ins and gives talks around the country. “It’s a sentimental journey,” he said, but Tuskegee’s legacy has lessons for the present and future.

“The reunions are an inspiration to black youth,” Dryden added. With African-Americans today making up just 2.5 percent of the Navy’s pilots and 2 percent of the Air Force’s, one of the event’s themes is encouraging minorities to consider careers in aviation. Opening doors for others, Dryden said, “was the greatest motivation that kept us going.”

Moton Field “is the nest,” Lewis added. “This is where black aviation took giant leaps.”

 
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