Tuskegee Airmen served America with heroism, sacrifice

ANDREWS AIR FORCE BASE, Md. -- Blacks have many opportunities in the military and public education because of the struggle for civil rights that occurred more than half a century ago, according to Lt. Col. (Ret.) Herbert Carter, a pilot and aircraft maintenance officer with the Tuskegee Airmen during World War II.

"You can be all that you want to be, but you have to keep yourself competitive and prepared," Colonel Carter told Air Force members attending the Black History Month luncheon here Feb. 20.

Colonel Carter discussed the heroism and sacrifices of the Tuskegee Airmen in the 1940s and how it ties in with the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kan., in 1954.

Since the founding of the U.S., blacks were treated as second-class citizens, Colonel Carter said. "We had no right to vote and we had to sit in the back of the bus," he pointed out. "We had limited access to secondary and higher education."

As war clouds gathered over Europe with the spread of Nazism in Germany, fascism in Italy and imperialism in Japan, the United States sat "in its little cocoon of isolation," Colonel Carter said.

"On the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, we were brought to the realization that isolation was folly," he said. "Hitler had demonstrated from the outset that he was going to use air power. His super dive-bombers brought Poland to its knees. America suddenly realized that it had a weak link in its chain. It had no air power."

The United States also didn't have enough pilots for military combat. The federal government offered anyone, even students at historically black land grant colleges such as Tuskegee University in Alabama, the opportunity to enter a pilot training program. Anyone interested was required to pass the Army physical and have at least two years of college.

Young black people jumped at the chance to apply for pilot training. Colonel Carter said they felt they had the capability and the capacity to serve their country at a level that would be beneficial for the fight for democracy. There was still the matter of segregation, however.

In 1925, the War College, in Washington, D.C., determined that blacks, based on a study during World War I, did not have the physiological and psychological qualities for leadership. Colonel Carter said the War College felt that blacks would be well suited for non-combat duties, such as driving trucks and maintaining grounds, in the next armed conflict.

"When the United States entered World War II, blacks were visionaries," he said. "They had a different concept of themselves. They could see themselves as officers and aviators. They had a dream that they could soar like an eagle."

The Army Air Corps denied applications by blacks because the military had no plans to have black aviators. A black student at Howard University, a historically black land-grant college in Washington, sued the federal government. The student's action led to the Roosevelt Administration activating the 99th Fighter Squadron. Pilots trained in P-40s in a small Alabama town called Tuskegee. People not rated for flying were trained as technicians and mechanics at Chanute Field, Ill., which later became Chanute Air Force Base.

In July 1943, the first group of blacks - some 33 in all - completed pilot training. "I was in the fourth class," Colonel Carter recalled. "I didn't have to endure 11 months of cadet training. I went directly into basic training. Five months later, I was a second lieutenant."

The Tuskegee Airmen thought they would see combat by Thanksgiving 1942. Christmas came and went, and they were still in Alabama. The reason was that no commander from Birmingham, Ala., to England wanted the all-black fighter squadron, Colonel Carter said.

Colonel Carter explained that commanders felt the squadron would create problems in the military because black officers would not be equal socially to white officers.

"Commanders were convinced that no white enlisted man would take an order from a black non-commissioned officer," he said.

On Easter Sunday 1943, the 99th Fighter Squadron flew to North Africa, where it was assigned to different airports. "We were sure we would be like the other pilots," Colonel Carter said. "We'd go up to 10,000 feet, flying in the wind and shooting down enemy planes. That was not the case. We were given a new mission. It was called closed tactical ground support."

By June 1943, the squadron's mission changed to long-range bomber escort. The pilots flew P-47s.

Between April 1943 and May 1945, the Tuskegee Airmen flew with the 99th Fighter Squadron and later with squadrons of the 332nd Fight Group. They performed an outstanding record of performance in tactical air-to-ground support of the Allied armies. More than 250 enemy aircraft were destroyed on the ground.

On 200 bomber escort missions deep in Germany and the Balkin countries, the pilots of the 332nd Fighter Squadron did not lose a bomber aircraft to German fighter aircraft. The pilots were known as the "Red Tails" because of the distinctive painting of the aircraft they flew, the P-51 Mustang.

Colonel Carter said Tuskegee Airmen proved that black people could fly planes and fight.

"They had demonstrated that if you take any group of people and give them the proper training and the opportunity to exercise that training, they will do extraordinary things," he said. "That's what [Oliver] Brown had in mind with his daughter. He wanted her to have equal opportunity with proper training so she could be what she wanted to be."