Red Tails: Tuskegee – Where Heroes First Flew
The high-flying exploits of the soldiers in the film Red Tails seems like the stuff of fiction. But what makes this tale of African-American fighter pilots battling the Nazis abroad and prejudice at home is that it’s true. Or as true as a Hollywood movie can be.
The Tuskegee Airmen indeed were a heroic cadre of World War II pilots that were never supposed to get off the ground. And even if they found glory over the skies of Europe, perhaps the most significant part of their story unfolded in Alabama.
After all, the Tuskegee Airmen owe their name and their training to an historic Dixie town long celebrated for African-American education. Tuskegee Institute, home to Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver, was where the pilots lived and trained as part of a grudging war effort to develop a segregated corps of fighters.
Today, the National Park Service has museums at historic Moton Field, where the pilots trained, and at what is now named Tuskegee University, a historic district in its own right and a thriving college campus. The pilots stayed in a dormitory, and underwent classroom instruction at the college. The sites are just a few miles apart and can both be visited in an afternoon.
Moton Field – The Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site
Moton Field is now a quiet municipal airport. But 70 years ago, it was the center of a great experiment. This is where the U.S. military reluctantly agreed to train blacks to fly in combat.
The field was named for Robert Russa Moton, a former president of Tuskegee Institite. The native Virginian’s name also graces the civil rights museum in Farmville, Va.
Visitors enter historic Hanger 1 and are greeted by a canary yellow-winged Stearman PT-17 bi-plane, which was where the pilots honed their impressive skills so dramatically shown in the movie.
But these were impressive men to being with. The airmen were selected from an elite group: all had attended college, and they were expected to be commissioned as army officers.
Some indeed went on to impressive military careers, including Benjamin O. Davis, the captain of the 99th Fighter Squadron (also known as the Airmen or Red Tails), who rose to become the first black Air Force general. Another Airman Daniel “Chappie” James later became the first African American four-star general in the Air Force.
It’s all the more impressive because the general belief was that blacks couldn’t fly. When the military eventually gave into public pressure from the NAACP to develop a segregated pilot training program, it was considered an experiment. The program started modestly with 13 candidates in July 1941. (Only five made it through the training).
“The general belief was that blacks couldn’t fly.”
Tuskegee was a logical place to base the Airmen. Not only was home to a historic black school, but it had been designated in 1939 as one of a few places in the country where African-Americans could be trained as civilian pilots. Still, Tuskegee didn’t have funds to build adequate training facilities until a black flight instructor took a special guest for a flight. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt said she enjoyed her brief excursion over South Alabama, and with that endorsement the program began to grow.
Eventually 992 Army Air Corps pilots were trained here and the adjacent Tuskegee Army Airfield, but the Airmen title has come to include the 17,000 support personnel including mechanics, cooks, electricians and instructors who were also part of the endeavor.
The pilots indeed saw great success, shooting down dozen of enemy aircraft. Their squadrons built an excellent reputation as escorts, never losing a bomber. But the Airmen were not invincible – 66 died in combat or accidents.
Perhaps part of their success can be traced to their training. The competition for pilot posts was grueling and hundreds of otherwise able candidates flunked out after the initial nine-week training because only a few slots were reserved for pilots.
The Airmen museum, located in one of the original hangers, sends visitors back to the
’40s, with leather bomber jackets on coat stands and Life magazines sitting on desks. Make sure to dart outside to poke into the tea room.
Unlike the rest of Alabama, this small cafe was integrated, allowing white and black personnel to share a hamburger and Coke between training flights. On the hill above, the Skyway Club, an officer’s club that is planned for restoration, was likewise integrated.
Other exhibits include a military briefing room where the pilot candidates learned about the German army, studying their aircraft, ships and uniforms. In an interactive area, guests can try their hand at folding a parachute, another crucial part of the military operation.
Not all the Airmen saw action in war – and they weren’t universally accepted either. One unit, the 447th Bombardment Group, were stationed in Freeman Field in Indiana, were arrested after protesting their exclusion from the segregated officer’s club. That action helped lead President Harry S Truman to issue an order in 1948 officially desegregating the military.
You can’t visit the Airmen site without visiting Tuskegee Institute. The busy college campus is why the training came to Alabama.
And in a larger sense, it also paved the way for the Airmen. Tuskegee was an independent institution that had proven that blacks could thrive in an educational setting if given a chance. The school attracted truly the best and the brightest and could push a pilot training program even when many in the military establishment didn’t want it to succeed.
The National Park Service museum on campus includes exhibits from Carver’s laboratory and many experiments, which helped popularize the peanut and the sweet potato.
But try to catch a tour of Washington’s impressive Victorian home, The Oaks, available Thursday-Saturday at 10 and 11 a.m. and 1 and 3 p.m. It was built and staffed by students, and had electricity and indoor plumbing before many homes in Alabama.
A campus tour includes a visit to the chapel and an impressive stained-glass window inspired by Negro spirituals. It also passes the graves of Washington and Carver.
The legacy of the Airmen is still very much a part of the University. It is the only historically black college to offer a degree in aerospace science engineering.