Fact vs Fiction: Setting Straight the Myths of The Tuskegee Airmen

In January, Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, hosted the cast and creative team of Apple TV+’s “Masters of the Air,” along with World War II veterans, Department of the Air Force senior leaders, and service members for a reception and special screening of the series’ first episode. Secretary of the Air Force, Frank Kendall, expressed his gratitude to everyone for taking part in this historic event, especially noting the three senior living B-17 8th Air Force officers in the room, as well as Tuskegee Airmen and other WWII veterans and family members.

Tuskegee Airmen in "Masters of the Air"
The famous Tuskegee Airmen will be present in an upcoming episode of the Apple TV+ original series “Masters of the Air.”

The series, which tells the story of World War II aviators who served in United States Army Air Force’s 100th Bomb Group of the 8th Air Force, has sparked controversy over the inclusion of black fighter pilots, the Tuskegee Airmen, in its portrayal of the American air effort.

Critics have argued that the inclusion of the famous unit is historically inaccurate as the Tuskegee Airmen were not part of the air campaign flown from Britain – but also that the series fails to represent the significant contribution and endemic racism faced by black soldiers at Thorpe Abbotts, where the 100th Bomb Group was based.

As noted by Dr. Daniel Haulman, retired United States Air Force historian, the Tuskegee Airmen are remembered as the first African American pilots in United States military service. They successfully refuted the false claim that black men lacked the ability to fly advanced military aircraft.

“Masters of the Air” is not the first time the unit has been depicted on TV, but there is more of the story to tell.

“Popular culture at first did not do enough to tell the story of the Tuskegee Airmen, especially in the first few decades after World War II, partly because many of the primary source documents remained classified,” explained Haulman.

Tuskegee Airmen
RAMITELLI, Italy — (From left) Lt. Dempsey W. Morgran, Lt. Carroll S. Woods, Lt. Robert H. Nelron Jr., Capt. Andrew D. Turner and Lt. Clarence P. Lester were pilots with the 332nd Fighter Group. The Airmen with the elite, all-black fighter group were better known as Tuskegee Airmen. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Yet, by the late 1990s and early 2000s, after the publication of numerous articles and books about the Tuskegee Airmen, and two movies about them, popular culture gave them plenty of attention. In recent years, the Tuskegee Airmen have arguably become more famous than many of the white fighter units, but as a result sometimes what they accomplished was exaggerated by the media.

“An example was the claim that the Tuskegee Airmen, in their fighter escort missions for bombers, had ‘never lost a bomber to enemy aircraft,’ which was false,” said Haulman. “The Tuskegee Airmen story is heroic and needs to be told, but without the false claims that once accompanied it.”

More Than Pilots

The term Tuskegee Airmen refers to the almost 1,000 black military pilots who trained to fly at Tuskegee, as well as to the thousands of ground personnel who were also assigned to the units and stationed at their bases in Europe. This included crew chiefs, mechanics, armorers, intelligence personnel, transportation personnel, staff officers, communications personnel, service personnel, and a host of other positions within their units.

Altogether there were well over 14,000 Tuskegee Airmen.

Tuskegee Airmen
Members of the unit seen training at Tuskegee Institute, Tuskegee, Alabama. (Source: U.S. Army Signal Corps/Library of Congress)

“Most people who have heard of the Tuskegee Airmen think only of the pilots who flew in combat overseas, especially those who flew red-tailed P-51 Mustang fighters to escort heavy bombers, such as B-17s and B-24s, for the 15th Air Force,” Haulman continued. “Not enough attention has gone to the P-40, P-39, and P-47 Tuskegee Airmen pilots who also flew in combat overseas, before conversion in the summer of 1944 to the P-51 Mustangs.”

Moreover, even less attention has been paid to the Tuskegee Airmen pilots who trained to fly overseas, but who did not deploy.  Of the almost 1,000 Tuskegee Airmen pilots who graduated from advanced flight training at Tuskegee Army Air Field, only 355 of them served in combat overseas.

Among those were pilots who trained with the 477th Bombardment Group. Several factors came into play why the unit – trained to fly B-25 medium bombers – was never deployed. However, the most important one is that the group was not activated until mid-January 1944, yet it had to wait for its full complement of pilots, navigators, and bombardiers.

“The navigators and bombardiers had to be trained at other bases beyond Tuskegee Army Air Field,” added Haulman. “Another reason the 477th Bombardment Group never deployed to combat overseas was that it was moved from one base to another, and there were racial conflicts within the organization, as its white commanding officers clashed with black officers coming from Tuskegee and the navigator and bombardier training bases over segregation policies at the bases where the 477th Bombardment Group was stationed.”

The group moved from Selfridge Field, Michigan, to Godman Field, Kentucky, and then to Freeman Field, Indiana. Black officers attempted to use facilities reserved for white training officers at Freeman Field, resulting in the arrest of 120 of the Black officers.

Negro Air Corps cadets
Basic and advanced flying school for Negro Air Corps cadets, Tuskegee, Alabama. In the center is Capt. Roy F. Morse, Air Corps, who was teaching the cadets how to send and receive code. (Photo: U.S. National Archives)

“This ‘Freeman Field Mutiny’ further delayed the combat preparations of the group, which was moved back to Godman Field, a former smaller training base while the integration issue was resolved. By the time the issue was resolved, the war was winding down,” said Haulman.

Fighting The Nazis and Discrimination

It has been widely written that some Tuskegee Airmen claimed that they faced less discrimination when based in Europe than when based in the United States.

“When they were based in the United States, all of the Tuskegee Airmen flying units, and the flight training units at Tuskegee Army Air Field, at first had white commanders, and the bases at which they served all had segregation issues, with white personnel assigned to certain facilities and black personnel assigned to other facilities,” Haulman noted.

When some of the black Tuskegee Airmen pilots were shot down and became prisoners of war in Luft Stalags in Germany, they were not segregated by race from the other prisoners – as the Germans segregated POWs into officer and enlisted sections, but not by race.

“Ironically, in the prison camp, some of the Tuskegee Airmen found themselves in a more integrated situation than they found themselves back at their training bases in the United States,” said Haulman, who added that it should be remembered the Tuskegee Airmen faced less danger from the enemy in America, of course.

Fighter Pilots – After a Fashion

Among the biggest myths of the Tuskegee Airmen may be that they instantly proved to be skilled fighter pilots. Yet, when first deployed to Europe there was little opportunity for the black pilots to shoot down enemy airplanes.

As Haulman explained, during the first six months of operations overseas, the Tuskegee Airmen shot down only one enemy airplane – understandable, given it flew P-40 fighters for the 12th Air Force, at first, to support surface forces such as Allied shipping in the Mediterranean Sea. It was expanded to strafing missions against enemy-held islands such as Pantelleria and Sicily, in concert with the white fighter squadrons, which also flew P-40s.

Edward C. Gleed of the Tuskegee Airmen
Edward C. Gleed and two unidentified Tuskegee airmen, Ramitelli, Italy, March 1945 (Photo: U.S. National Archives)

The first African American pilot to shoot down an enemy airplane was Tuskegee Airman 1st Lt. Charles B. Hall, on July 2, 1943. The next aerial victories did not occur until January 1944, but it was a lack of opportunity, rather than a lack of skill.

By the end of the war in Europe, 72 Tuskegee Airmen pilots went on to shoot down a total of 112 enemy airplanes. While none of the Tuskegee Airmen shot down five enemy airplanes to become an ace, three of the black pilots shot down four enemy airplanes, and four of them shot down three enemy airplanes in a single day.

The Tuskegee Airman program, which began in 1941, was finally inactivated at Lockbourne Air Force Base in 1949. Yet many of the Tuskegee Airmen elected to remain in the Air Force, with some of them flying combat missions in Korea and Vietnam.

Retired Lt. Col. James H. Harvey III
Retired Lt. Col. James H. Harvey III., a Tuskegee Airman and one of the nation’s first African American fighter pilots, is honorarily promoted to colonel at Empower Field in Denver, Colo., Nov. 4, 2023. (U.S. Air Force photo by Trevor Cokley)

In total, four Tuskegee Airmen rose to the rank of general including one honorary promotion.

“In short,” said Haulman, “The fact that four of the Tuskegee Airmen – Benjamin O. Davis Jr., Daniel “Chappie” James, Lucius Theus, and Charles McGee – became United States Air Forces generals, among other factors, demonstrated the success of the Tuskegee Airmen training program and is an important part of the Tuskegee Airmen legacy.”

Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based freelance writer who regularly covers firearms related topics and military history. As a reporter, his work has appeared in dozens of magazines, newspapers, and websites. Among those are The National Interest, Forbes, and many others. He has collected military small arms and military helmets most of his life, and just recently navigated his first NFA transfer to buy his first machine gun. He is co-author of the book A Gallery of Military Headdress, which was published in February 2019. It is his third book on the topic of military hats and helmets.

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