Rising above: Tuskegee Airmen, trailblazers of US military's first African-American pilots

A traveling exhibit stood parked on the grounds of Patriots Point all last week. The outside looked like a patriotic semi-trailer truck, but the inside told a story of perseverance that shaped the history of today’s Air Force.

On behalf of the Commemorative Air Force (CAF), the exhibit RISE ABOVE showed a 30-minute film chronicling the U.S. military’s first African-American pilots, the Tuskegee Airmen. The exhibit was sponsored by Lowcountry Aviation Sky Arrow and partnered by the USS Yorktown Foundation, Veteran of Foreign Wars Post 10624 and American Legion Post 136.

The Tuskegee Airmen were the first to pave the way for integration to exist in a racially segregated armed services at the time. Their heroics changed the times and the minds of many during the Jim Crow Era.

“We, the commemorators of the Air Force, are telling this story because at the time we started nobody else was,” said Terry Hollis, CAF tour manager. “This is a part of history that has to be told and they deserve the recognition.”

Before 1940, African-Americans were barred from flying for the U.S. military. They were denied military leadership roles and skilled training because many falsely believed they lacked qualifications for combat duty.

This rationale soon changed as the U.S. teetered on the brink of War World II. Two years into the war, in 1941, Civil Rights organizations and African-American media outlets convinced President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration to order the Army Air Corps (precursor to the Air Force) to form a segregated flight training base at Moton Air Field in Tuskegee, Ala.

That African-American pursuit squadron − both military and civilian, male and female − became known as the Tuskegee Airmen. They served with the segregated 332nd Fighter Group and the 477th Bombardment Group.

The first class of Tuskegee had 13 cadets and only five earned their wings. In all, 996 pilots made it through the Tuskegee program from 1941-45, according to CAF. However, their statistics during wartime defied even greater odds.

During the war, the Tuskegee were sent to North Africa and then to Italy to support the Allied surge to Nazi Germany. From June 1943 until April 1945, 355 Tuskegee pilots flew 1,578 combat and non-combat missions, according to CAF.

The Tuskegee were tasked with being escorts to white bomber pilots. Their sole objective was to guard and protect white bombers from enemy attacks, even if it meant putting themselves in harm’s way.

When they first started, the Tuskegee were given orders to bomb obscure locations to keep them afar from the action zones so they weren’t in position to be victorious or receive wartime accolades. Soon thereafter, white bomber crews began requesting Tuskegee pilots as escorts on account of their safe reputation in the sky.

The Tuskegee Airmen would later earn the nickname “Red Tails” because they painted the tip of their P-51 Mustang bombers red to distinguish themselves from enemy aircraft and avoid friendly fire. Another neat anecdote were the six precepts for inspiration inscribed on their dog tags:

  • Aim High
  • Believe In Yourself
  • Use Your Brain
  • Never Quit
  • Be Ready To Go
  • Expect To Win

Of the near 15,000 Tuskegee Airmen, only about 1,000 were pilots. In the totality of those missions, 66 were killed in action, 32 were taken prisoner and 27 missing in action, according to the Associated Press.

Astonishingly enough, the Tuskegee never lost an aircraft they escorted over hostile territory. No Tuskegee personnel were lost to enemy fighters in the air, ground fire only.

“I’d like to say all the guys in World War II were a different breed, but (Tuskegee Airmen) were great people and I just can’t imagine what they had to go through to get what they wanted,” said Bill King, commander of VFW Post 10624 and VFW District 1. King served a total of 24 years in the Air Force.

There are 11 Eleven Tuskegee pilots alive today and about 150 airmen as a whole, according to Hollis. The total number of Tuskegee Airmen from South Carolina was not confirmed by this article’s publication.

“We don’t like to leave (any) of them out because the pilots themselves will tell you they couldn’t do it without the ground crew. They would stay up all night getting (pilots’) planes ready to fly,” Hollis said.

Of those remaining, during the Feb. 4 State of the Union Address, President Donald Trump recognized 100-year-old Charles McGee with an honorary promotion to brigadier general. McGee, who’s been awarded a Congressional Gold Medal and inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame, flew more than 130 combat missions in WWII and more than 400 overall including the Korean War and Vietnam War.

“They were pioneers for certain. They rose above the adversity of the times and culture,” said Art Horn, commander of American Legion Moultrie Post 136. “To be another band of brothers and a story, that if we don’t keep retelling, it’s going to get lost in our history.”

In 1997 a monument was dedicated at Walterboro Army Airfield Memorial Park where. This park was formerly used by the Tuskegee pilots used as a training ground, according to South Carolina Department of Parks, Recreation & Tourism. Also, the section of I-95 that runs through Colleton County was renamed the Tuskegee Memorial Highway to celebrate their legacy and connection to South Carolina.

“These were men and we were making too much of what race they were from. We were all in the war together, they’re Americans, they’re Patriots and heroes and should be recognized as such,” Horn added.

The Tuskegee Airmen were disbanded in May 1946. Two years later, President Harry S. Truman would declare an Executive Order that effectively desegregated the armed forces.

The RISE ABOVE exhibit makes approximately 40 stops nationwide throughout the year and has been in operation since 2011. RISE ABOVE will be returning to the Lowcountry for the Joint-Base Charleston Air & Space Expo in North Charleston on April 18-19.

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