TUSKEGEE‘S FLYING PRIDE By Diane Cameron

Children are big dreamers. Curiosity, ambition and fantasy are dominant ingredients of their formative years. Psychiatry tells us that adolescence marks the beginning development of a more complex thinking process including idealistic thought and reasoning. However an individual’s desire to embrace bravery, courage and sheer guts while discounting the reality of danger is not ordinary or formulaic. Could this predisposition of extreme valor be inherent in their DNA even from conception? Interesting though, how fear prohibits one person from even taking an air flight while on the opposite end of the spectrum, impudence inspires another to become a pilot. So it is with any choice in life, one wonders at what stage of development a clear and definite vocational decision or resolution for a career path becomes fixed. Ask most successful people why they chose their profession and often they will tell you it has been a desire since childhood. In 1941 in New York, African American civil rights leader, A. Phillip Randolph had emerged as one of the most visible spokespersons for African-American civil rights. He designed a march on Washington to protest racial discrimination in war. This was a bold initiative on Randolph’s part; however at the southern pole of the United States in the same year, another phenomenon was developing in Tuskegee, Alabama that would eventually wrestle against the same injustices. Before 1940, African Americans were barred from flying for the U.S. military. Civil rights organizations and the Black Media exerted applied force resulting in the creation of an all African-American chase squadron based in Tuskegee, Alabama, in 1941. They soon became known as the Tuskegee Airmen. The military selected Tuskegee Institute to train pilots because it had already invested in the development of an airfield, had a proven civilian pilot training program and its graduates performed highest on flight aptitude exams. Tuskegee had the facilities, the engineering, technical instructors, as well as an ideal climate for year round flying. The first Civilian Pilot Training Program students completed their

instruction in May 1940. The Tuskegee program expanded to become the epicenter for African-American aviation during World War II. Tuskegee Institute was contracted by the military administering primary flight training and the army built a separate and segregated base for their advanced training. The allBlack, 332nd Fighter Group consisted originally of four fighter squadrons, the 99th, the 100th, the 301st and the 302nd. From 1940-1946, over 1,000 Black pilots were trained at Tuskegee. The defect in this otherwise perfect story is that the ugly head of prejudice and intolerance surfaced questioning the abilities of the Tuskegee Airmen of the 99th Fighter Squadron, the 332nd Fighter Group and the 477th Medium Bombardment Group. Heroically proving themselves and their capabilities, they contradicted the insolence that African-Americans were incompetent for the austerity to serve in the highly specialized battle brigade of the USAAF. But regardless of their successful exploits, Black airmen still were segregated. President Harry S. Truman recognized that segregation by race in the military needed to end. As fate would have it, the segregated U.S. Army Air Force's experimental flying unit required a black leader. Capt. Benjamin O. Davis Jr. was chosen to lead the outfit because he was one of only two black line officers in the Army. His father Capt. Davis, a West Point graduate was the other. The elder Davis utilized his leadership skills and personal strength in overcoming racism and became a potent combat leader who eventually became the U.S. Air Force's first African American General. Truman's executive order 9981, of July 26, 1948, directed that the "highest standards of democracy" were essential in the armed services, and that "there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons regardless of race, color, religion or national origin." The U.S. Air Force became a separate service in 1947 and benefitted from the superior experience of the Tuskegee Airmen, leaders in integrating the military. The USAF was the first service to abolish this apartheid, heralding the vanguard achievements and brave legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen. The Congressional Gold Medal, Congress' most distinguished civilian award, was presented to the Tuskegee Airmen, collectively, in ceremonies in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda in Washington, D.C. on March 29, 2007. As authorized under the law, President Bush presented the Gold Medal on behalf of Congress. Designed by the U.S. Mint, the award medal contains 15-ounces of gold and is currently housed at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. What personal principles drives a man to serve his country in combat, possibly dying for those who refuse to recognize him as a man when and if he returns from war? There has to be an inner resolve, an inimitable resoluteness of patriotism unmoved by danger, malice or denigration. During an interview in 2007, Lee Archer, a Tuskegee fighter pilot sums it up this way, “For one thing, I wanted to fly, and I wasn't going to let other people's expectations stop me from doing it,” he said. “For another, it's my country, too,

whether or not other people believed that. I love my country, and we were at war. So, in your face. That's how I felt about it.”
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