The poster for the new film Red Tails shows Second World War fighter aircraft in combat. It doesn’t show that the pilots are all black. You wouldn’t know that the Red Tails’ greatest achievement was overcoming racism. The 332nd Airborne were the only black fighter pilots in the segregated US Air Force, where racism was deeply entrenched.
The true story of the first black fighter squadron reveals an important truth about the US military. Since its foundation, during the American Independence War of 1775 to 1782, it has been a battleground over race. The first rebel casualty in the war of independence was the black former slave Crispus Attucks, shot down by British redcoats in 1775.
Many other black people flocked to the banner of independence. The rebel leadership’s response was mixed—many were slaveholders who weren’t keen on black people carrying guns. And there were some slaveholders who took a different line—offering slaves freedom if they would fight in their masters’ places.
At least 5,000 black soldiers fought, but their role was not appreciated. After this war a new militia act of 1792 called on “each and every white male citizen” to be ready to fight for the new country. More bluntly the policy of the Marines set out in 1798 said, “No negro, mulatto or Indian shall be enlisted”. This was faithfully maintained until 1942.
In the 1860s campaigners for the abolition of slavery, such as Frederick Douglass, were determined to get black people to fight in the Union army in the Civil War of 1861 to 1865. For Douglass, allowing black people to join the army and particularly to take part in combat was important—even if it was in segregated units. It meant clawing recognition that African Americans could be adult citizens, not boys who could be given no responsibility.
The Northern leadership in the American Civil War also recognised its need for active black support and black soldiers to win. By the end of the war there were more than 186,000 black combat troops as well as 29,000 sailors in the navy.
The period after the civil war saw a mass radicalisation in US society. Poor blacks and whites were working together to demand more rights in the south.
The government in Washington turned a blind eye to the rise of the racist Ku Klux Klan. And they supported the segregationist Jim Crow laws that were brought in at the end of the 19th century. The civil war was also about enabling the US to expand westwards under a united government.
There is an irony of history here. In the army during the Civil War, black people were able to participate in their own liberation from slavery. Yet many then stayed in the army as it moved on to subjugate the West and suppress native Americans. The native Americans called them “Buffalo soldiers” for their curly hair.
The situation for black people in the US worsened in the early 20th century. But the First World War marked a major shift in the position of black people in the US. Many moved to cities and got better jobs in war-related work. Others joined the army and, despite the continuing racism and segregation, built up the confidence to challenge how they were treated.
In the most extreme example a black unit at fort Sam Houston in Texas refused to put up with Jim Crow laws. They armed themselves and went into town to deal with racists in August 1917. After a night of fighting 15 locals and four soldiers were dead. The army took the strongest action against the troops, court martialling dozens and executing 19.
The racist backlash that swept the country after the war was partly intended to wipe out this surge in confidence. But the political struggles of the 1930s led to a massive growth in confidence that the world could be changed.
The ruling class justified the Second World War as a fight for democracy and against racism. Many black troops demanded to be allowed into areas that were denied to them—deemed to require too much skill. In 1942 the race bar on the Marines was finally removed, although black Marines were still segregated. The Red Tails fighter squadron was formed at about the same time (see below).
A black tank battalion, the 761st, fought in Europe and took part in the liberation of Dachau concentration camp. The segregation of the military became an international embarrassment through the war.
This intensified as the US sold itself as the home of democracy and the head of the “Free World”. It was finally forced into desegregating its military in 1948. But that didn’t end racism in the US military.
In Vietnam black troops could no longer be ignored. Instead they found themselves pushed to the front as cannon fodder. Though only 10 percent of troops were black, at the peak of the war in 1968 they contributed half the men in front line combat units. In 1965 alone black troops made up almost a quarter of soldiers killed in action.
Despite this, the army was one of the few places where a black man could have a professional career. African Americans re-enlisted at substantially higher rates than whites. In 1964 blacks represented less than 9 percent of all US military. By 1976 this was 15 percent. In the same period the number of black officers doubled, but after centuries of entrenched racism that only took it to a little under 4 percent.
The position of black people in the army has undoubtedly improved. Pressure from the Civil Rights and black power movements have led to a situation where a black officer like Colin Powell can be chief of staff.
But any soldier who does become integrated in the system still faces the same problem as the Buffalo soldiers in the 19th century. They become free to take part in the oppression of others.
Second World War US bomber crews in Italy got used to badly trained fighter support. So they cheered when they saw the disciplined “Red Tail Angels” of the 332nd squadron had been assigned to them. Many were shocked when they found the pilots were black.
Racism was rife in the US military. A secret 1924 War College Report concluded that African Americans were “unfit for leadership roles and incapable of aviation”. As the war started a senior air force commander commented, “The Negro type has not the proper reflexes to make a first-class fighter pilot.”
It took a serious internal struggle to get a programme of training for black pilots at just one airbase—at Tuskegee in Alabama. Most came from northern cities, and were shocked by how they were treated in Alabama. There the apartheid Jim Crow laws still ruled supreme.
The Tuskegee airmen were led by Benjamin Oliver Davis Jr. He was the first black man to graduate from West Point in the 20th century. During his four year course, no one spoke to Davis outside the line of duty. He never had a roommate. He ate alone. Davis recalled “it was like four years of solitary confinement.”
He graduated in 1936, 35th in a class of 278. He was rejected for the Army Air Corps because there were no black units. But black fighter pilots had one real advantage over their white counterparts. The racist military establishment wouldn’t deploy them for years, so they ended up far better trained than other pilots.
The Tuskegee project began in 1941, but they were not sent into combat in north Africa until 1943. They were supplied with out of date aircraft and told only to attack ground targets. This was then held against them as they were told they had a dismal record for shooting down enemy aircraft!
Racists used this as a reason to call for the squadron to be disbanded, and a congressional hearing was held before the flyers were vindicated. Then the 332nd was reassigned to bomber escort. They flew support on 200 raids over Europe and claimed never to have lost one of their charges.
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