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History of Tuskegee Airmen told during Lunch N Learn

VALLEY — Author and Tuskegee Airmen expert Dr. Dan Haulman told a large gathering at a Friday Lunch N Learn program that the myth about the famed World War II fighter pilot group wasn’t started by the Airmen themselves but by news reporters who were exaggerating details of their flights. The program took place in Bradshaw-Chambers County Library’s Lanier Room.

“They lost a bomber on their second mission,” he said. “They knew they couldn’t protect all the planes.”

Even so, the Alabama-trained flyers had some amazing successes in the war against the Axis Powers. “Their exemplary performance proved conclusively that given the opportunity and resources, black men could fly and fight every bit as well in combat as their white counterparts. They lost fewer bombers, and they shot down 112 enemy aircraft.”

The air war over Europe was the first battle they faced. They had another one when they got back home: the fight for equality.

Haulman is the chief historian for the organizational branch of the U.S. Air Force Research Agency, based at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery. He has researched and written extensively about the Tuskegee Airmen and has met a number of them. Just under 1,000 young black men graduated from the training school near Tuskegee Institute. About a third of that number went to war zone in North Africa, Sicily and Italy in the late stages of WW II. A total of 66 of them were killed in combat and 31 were prisoners of war. Their numbers have dwindled in recent years. A total of 16 of them are still left.  All of them are in their nineties and some are close to 100 years of age.

“It wasn’t until 1942 when there were any black combat pilots in the U.S.,” Haulman said.

A black man from Columbus, Ga., Eugene Bullard, was an exception to the rule. Before the U.S. entered World War I, he made his way to France and joined the French Air Service. “He wanted to be in the U.S. Air Service when America joined the war but was denied,” Haulman said.

In the post-WW I era in the U.S., there was a resurgence in racial animosity. The Ku Klux Klan was a very powerful organization in the 1920s, and the military took a hard line against blacks playing significant roles in service. Haulman said that in 1925 the U.S. Army did a study about blacks in military service and determined that they should not be allowed to have leadership positions.

The hard line began to soften in the Great Depression of the 1930s. When FDR ran for his third term in 1940, he promised to allow for the training of black pilots. His wife, Eleanor, was very much an advocate of this. In March 1941, she made a trip to Tuskegee and flew with “Chief” Charles Alfred Anderson, who led the flight instructors at Tuskegee.

At that time, the 99th Pursuit Squadron had been activated but did not have any pilots. This famed squadron was organized near Chicago and went south to Tuskegee due to better flying weather for longer periods of time. “The War Department agreed to train them, but on a segregated basis,” Haulman said. “Tuskegee was in the part of the country where racial segregation was considered normal.”

The Tuskegee Airmen had to overcome a lot, but they earned quite a legacy. The first black general in the U.S. Air Force was a Tuskegee Airman, as was the first black four-star general. The Tuskegee Airmen flew 312 missions for the 15th Air Corps. A total of 179 of those missions were bomber escorts. There were bomber losses in only seven them., with a total of 27 bombers lost altogether. The pilots racked up 112 victory credits and were awarded a total of 96 Distinguished Flying Crosses. Four Tuskegee Airmen each earned three aerial kills one day.

The first class graduated in March 1942. Among them was a young man named Benjamin O. Davis. Despite much harassment from fellow cadets, he had managed to graduate in the top third of his class at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y.

Things are a lot different today. Haulman says there’s a new barracks at West Point that’s named in honor of him.

“There was three phases of training – primary, basic and advanced,” Haulman said. “Different kinds of planes were needed for that. Primary could be done on the ground with biplanes. They would then moved from Moton Field to a nearby Army area with paved runways and three large hangars. The buildings were torn down after the war.”

The hangars were moved from the Tuskegee area but are still in use in civilian air flight. One of the hangars is in Montgomery, another in Troy and one in Clanton. Haulman said he will soon be in Troy for the unveiling of an historical marker about the hangar that’s now in Troy.

“When the airmen finished advanced training they had specialized training in aircraft such as B-25 bombers and P-40 fighter planes,” Haulman said. “The fighter pilots made it to the war zones, but war ended before the trained bomber crews were called on.”

Haulman said that Col. Noel Parrish was one of the true heroes of the Tuskegee Airmen story. “He made sure the program was designed to succeed and not fail,” Haulman said. “He made sure that facilities were integrated and not segregated.” At the end of the war he moved on to Air University at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery and wrote a thesis calling on the military to be integrated. That became reality in  1947 when President Harry Truman issued an executive order to do this.

In July 1944 when based in Ramitelli, Italy, the Airmen were allowed use of a new fighter plane, the now legendary P-51. “It was the best Allied fighter plane of  the war,” Haulman said. “They painted the tails red to identify their fighter group.”

Haulman said that he enjoys talking to Col. (ret.) Charles McGee. “He’s 98 now and had some amazing experiences,” he said. “He flew fighter missions in WW II, Korea and Vietnam. His P-51 was No. 78. He called it Kitten. I asked him why that nickname, and told me he liked the way it purred.”

Col, McGee had a total of 409 combat missions.

The Tuskegee Airmen, said Haulman, loved to fly but had few opportunities to fly planes on civilian air lines. One of the problems here was that the civilian lines hired pilots who were experienced in flying four-engine planes.

“There was a myth for a long time that the Tuskegee Airmen never lost a plane,” Haulman said. “That’s not true. It is true that they lost fewer bombers than the average of all the others. They lost a total of 27 planes. The average of all other fighter groups was 46.”

One of the more eventful missions took place on March 24, 1945. They were in their red-tailed P-51s and  escorted a bomber group over Berlin. “It was one of largest missions of the 15th,” Haulman said. “Three Tuskegee Airmen shot down German jet fighters that day. Those planes could fly 100 miles an hour faster than conventional planes, but the Germans at that time lacked trained pilots and their jets had a shorter turning radius than the P-51.”

The Airmen received a Distinguished Unit Citation that day, and the three pilots who shot down jets – Lee Archer, Joseph Elsberry and Edward Topping – each received a Distinguished Flying Cross.

In May1954, one of the Tuskegee Airmen, Benjamin O. Davis Jr., became the first black general in the U.S. Air Force. In  1975, another former Tuskegee Airman, Gen. Daniel “Chappie” James, became the first African-American to have four stars.

Haulman said that James was the Cam Newton of fighter pilots. “He was six-foot-four and had a hard time fitting in the planes,” he said. “He had a great sense of humor. He liked to tell people that it wasn’t so much he was getting in the plane as it was ’strapping it on.’”

Some Tuskegee Airmen were at the inauguration of President Barack Obama in 2009.

Haulman said that there was a very special medal that was made to honor the Airmen. Only one was made. It’s solid gold and is on display at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. The Airmen who were still living at the time received bronze replicas.

Haulman said he likes to tell the story of all the Airmen and not just the fighter pilots. Those others include the bomber crews that never saw action inWW II and those on the ground who supported their brothers in the air. “They fought two enemies,” he said. “Nazis in Europe and racism at home. Through their dedication and efforts they earned  a hard-won double victory.”