Arts & Events

The Real Story of the Tuskegee Airmen

By Gar Smith
Friday February 17, 2012 - 12:29:00 PM
The Real Tuskegee Airmen
The Real Tuskegee Airmen
Eleanor and C. Alfred Anderson
Eleanor and C. Alfred Anderson

George Lucas' Red Tails is a serviceable introduction to the accomplishments of the Tuskegee Airmen but a richer and more honest story can be found in Adam White's Red Tail Reborn, which was originally broadcast on PBS and is now available in a two-disk set that includes extended bonus interviews with a number of surviving "Red Tails." (, including Col. Charles McGee, a man who has flown more combat missions than any other American (409 missions; 6,100 hours in the air) and who — as the film shows, is still proudly flying. 

The film begins with a visit to the crumbling barracks and abandoned airfield in Tennessee where the airmen trained. The weathered base serves as a visual metaphor, underscoring the fact that, until recently, the story of the Tuskegee pilots had remained as forgotten as their long-abandoned base. There was a time (not too long ago) when people would insist that no African Americans ever flew airplanes during WWII. Most history book made no mention of their role. As one of the veterans wryly notes during an interview, "It wasn't until the 1970s that we even heard the name 'Tuskegee Airman.'" 

The odds against these pilots were immense. A secret 1924 War College Report concluded: "Blacks [are] unfit for leadership roles and incapable of aviation." One senior Army commander had no hesitation in saying outright what the War College Report was claiming in private. "The Negro type has not the proper reflexes to make a first-class fighter pilot," he proclaimed. 

That kind of thinking didn't deter C. Alfred "Chief" Anderson. He had wanted to fly since he was a child but, when no one would let him near a plane, because of the color of his skin, Anderson, now a young man, borrowed, $2,500 from family and friends and bought his own plane. He taught himself to fly, earned a coveted Air Transport certificate and went on to become the chief instructor at the Tuskegee training base. 

The 'Tuskegee Experiment' Gets Off the Ground 

When President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a law calling for the "training" of black pilots in 1941, critics hoped the program would prove a disaster. But the equation was dramatically altered when Eleanor Roosevelt took it upon herself to visit Tuskegee. Despite the protests of her secret security protectors, she climbed into the back seat of an open-cockpit plane and insisted that the plane take off for a short flight with a broadly smiling African American pilot at the controls. 

"That one picture in the plane did it," an elderly Airman remembers fondly. "She wasn't afraid of flying with these so-called 'inferior beings.'" And, with that, the "Tuskegee Experiment" took off. 

For many of these would-be pilots (who had grown up and graduated from colleges in the country's large, northern cities), this was their first visit to the Deep South where racism was still in full force. They found themselves segregated on their own base where the US Army provided them with separate barracks and a separate mess hall. 

The officer in charge of the training base was General Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. An exceptional leader, Davis had survived four years as the first non-white candidate at West Point. For four years, no one would speak to him; he was given his own room, with no roommate; he was forced to eat his meals alone. But Ben Davis refused to accept defeat. Instead of striking back, he hit the books — and graduated at the head of his class. 

Under Davis' strict command, the training was rigorous, with as many as 65% of the aspiring fliers being sent home. Eventually four squadrons consisting of nearly 1,000 men had been trained to fly but, as the war raged, they were kept on the ground—forced to continue "training." It wasn't until 1943 that the fliers were finally ordered into battle. Flying dated P-40s, they initially were dispatched to Africa and confined to attacking "ground targets only" (trains, trucks and convoys). 

When the Tuskegee pilots were finally allowed to accompany a fleet of bombers headed toward Munich, the results confounded the critics. With only 39 planes, the Airmen went up against 100 German fighters, shot down five, and didn't lose a single US bomber. 

A good part of this remarkable record was attributable to a command decision that required the Red Tails stay with the bombers and not to go off chasing German planes in an attempt to "score kills" (which had been the preferred practice of the white "aces"). Ironically, another explanation for the Red Tails' success was their enforced period of extended training. White pilots were expected to be "90-day Wonders," trained to fly and sent into combat missions in three-months' time. By contrast, when the Tuskegee fliers finally hit the clouds, they were an incredibly cohesive and accomplished flying force. 

Out-Flying the Bounds of Racism 

The "Red Tails" quickly won the admiration and praise of the generally all-white ranks of US bomber pilots. As one of 85-year-old veteran of those WWII bombing missions recalls in the film: "They were the best. As a pilot, I wouldn't want to be covered by anyone else." The bomber pilots started to call their escorts "the Red Tailed Angels of the Sky." And, as White's narrator notes, their accomplishments provided "a miracle our country didn't even know it needed." 

Between June 1943 and April 1945, the Tuskegee Airmen flew more than 1,500 missions, downing more than 260 enemy aircraft and sinking one destroyer. The ability and valor they demonstrated during those challenging months won the Airmen's 332nd Fighter Group a Distinguished Unit Citation for "outstanding performance and extraordinary heroism" and lead directly to President Harry Truman's desegregation of all military branches in 1948. 

Later in his career, Gen. Davis would remark: "With the enemy, I only had to die once. In the Army Air Corps and in life, I had to live with the day-to-day suffering of degradation and racism." 

One of the more remarkable observations that came out of the WWII experience was a story told by a Tuskegee pilot who had been confined in a German prison. After the war, he told his family and friends: "The first time I didn't face segregation in the military was in a Nazi prisoner-of-war camp after being shot down in Austria." Surprisingly, German soldiers seemed well aware of the problem of racism in the US. More than one US airman heard a German captor ask the question: "How can you fight for a country that treats you unfairly?" 

Airman Charles "A-Train" Dryden had a response. "Because it was still my country. And I believed the country had the capacity to change." 

"The Tuskegee Airmen have a unique legacy worth preserving," writes Harold Brown, PhD. "We fought two wars — one against the Nazis overseas, the other against segregation." Prof. Brown should know. He was the Tuskegee Airman who was shot down and spent time as a POW in German captivity. 

The mistreatment of the heroes of Tuskegee did not end with the conclusion of WWII. "In spite of [our] impressive combat record," Brown recalls, "we were excluded from WWII victory parades." And he suffered a further indignity as one of a group of black soldiers who were ordered to "give up our seats on a train [to make room for] Nazi POWs." 

The Plane that Restored a Buried History 

The larger portion of White's Red Tail Reborn is devoted to the long struggle to restore an abandoned P-51C Mustang — the signature warplane of the Tuskegee Airmen. 

Sold for $1 to a Montana school, where it sat untouched for 20 years, the plane was purchased by an entrepreneur who sawed off both wings to fit it onto a cargo trailer. During more years of storage, the plane's near-pristine internal parts and engine were seriously damaged by salt-water corrosion when the plane was covered by hurricane-driven ocean water. 

The damaged plane crisscrossed the country several times in failed attempts to begin needed repairs. Eventually the remains were donated to the Commemorative Air Force, a nonprofit that has restored more than 150 military planes — including bombers and fighters — to flying condition. 

Don Hinz, a former military pilot turned businessman, discovered the hidden story of the Tuskegee Airmen and decided to devote his time and money to restoring the battered P-51 so it could be used as a teaching tool, bringing the story of America's forgotten flying aces to people across the country — one air show at a time. "Our objective," Hinz declared, "is to carry the lessons of the Tuskegee Airmen into every classroom." 

Working with two former crop-duster pilots who had joined forces to create one of the world's leading military aviation restoration workshops, Hinz and a team of volunteers, managed to get the plane back in the air. In 2001, bearing the new name "Tuskegee Airmen," it flew again for the first time in 56 years. 

This flying antique became "one of the most-photographed planes in the nation" and, as it traveled the air show circuit, it brought the story of the Tuskegee Airmen to hundreds of thousands of plane-lovers. There was an unexpected bonus. As the plane landed at airfields across the nation, former Airmen began showing up to marvel at the plane, to speak with the men who had saved it, and to reminisce about their lives. As the CAF members (almost all white) grew to know these veterans, they forged a bond and became determined to help spread the story of their incredible service. (And here is a great side order of irony: the CAF for most of its history was known as the "Confederate Air Force.") 

The restoration of this single plane provided a major boost to restoring the lost history of the men who had flown it in aerial combat over Africa, Italy and Germany. In appreciation, Don Hinz was inducted as an "honorary Tuskegee Airman." 

Tragically, Hinz died at the controls of the P-51 when an engine failure (caused by a single small metal nut) sent him falling from the sky during maneuvers at Wisconsin's Red Wing Airshow. Somehow, Hinz managed to dive under some neighborhood powerlines and plant the plane safely between two homes. No one on the ground was injured but Don Hinz died the next day and the plane was ravaged. 

At Hinz' funeral it was agreed that, "as a tribute to Don," the plane would fly again — with his oldest son Kelly at the controls. 

Rebuilding a Dream from Bits of Metal 

Anyone who believes that America is no longer a country where individuals can manufacture anything of value, needs to watch the second half of Red Tail Reborn

The mangled metal left in the wake of Hinz' crash was hauled to a warehouse and eventually into the care of Tristate Aviation, a North Dakota firm that specializes in restoring Mustangs. Rebuilding the plane would take five long years. Parts that once were mass-produced for wartime assembly lines, now had to be recreated from scratch using bafflingly complex blueprints scavenged from government microfiche archives. 

And because the work was costly and time-consuming, the labor depended on a team of a half-dozen dedicated volunteers. Some of them would drive great distances to spend a weekend working on the damaged plane. 

Before the work was finished, time claimed another casualty when the head of TriState crashed while flying his own Mustang. And during the course of the restoration, Don Heinz's son Kelly was killed when his Marine jet crashed during a flight in Iraq. 

Finally, on July 22, 2009, this amazing group of machinists, engineers, metalworkers and devoted tinkerers looked on and cheered as the plane was once again rolled out on the tarmac. It's Rolls-Royce engine roared to life, tossing off a blue cloak of engine smoke, and the reborn P-51 once again headed down an airstrip and leaped into the sky. 

Looking to the Future 

"The Tuskegee Airmen served a nation not willing to serve them," General Colin Powell once said. "I stood on their shoulders. They made America better for all of us." 

"The perseverance of the Tuskegee Airmen in adverse conditions is a story that all young people could benefit from hearing," says Airman Harold Brown. Sadly, Brown adds: "Time is running out for the Tuskegee Airmen and the WWII generation. But there is no reason that our record of accomplishment and ability to overcome adversity should die with us. The CAF's Red Tail Squadron's educational mission will help ensure our legacy." 

The CAF's Red Tail Squadron leader is Brad Lang, the son of a Tuskegee veteran and one of the two men who now flies the rebuilt P-51 at air shows. In addition to showcasing the plane, the Red Tail Squadron is now building a "RISE ABOVE Traveling Exhibit"— a 53-foot rolling "theatre van" that will appear at air shows wherever the "Tuskegee Airmen" is scheduled to appear. The van will be filled with films, photos and historic memorabilia intended to enhance public understanding of the Red Tailed Angels. In addition to honoring the 996 men who won their wings at Tuskegee, the Red Tail Squadron also pays tribute to "more than 10,000 black mechanics, armament and communication specialists and administrators" who also deserve to be recognized as Tuskegee Airmen "because of the important role they played" in their support of the pilots. 

Anyone who wishes to contribute to the Red Tail's educational campaign will qualify for an array of souvenirs ranging from flight caps and educational playing cards to DVDs (including the Red Tail Reborn box-set). One of CAF's unique gifts is a commemorative dog-tag inscribed with the six Red Tail Principles: "Aim High. Believe in Yourself. Use Your Brain. Never Quit. Be Ready to Go. Expect to Win." 

For more information or to learn how you can contribute to the Red Tail's RISE ABOVE project, contact: The Commemorative Air Force, PO Box 8039, Topeka, Kansas 66608. (888) 928-0188.