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Flying into history; Forest Service brings ‘Tuskegee Airmen’ to Quincy

Mona Hill
Staff Writer
2/14/2012

In a case of who you know, not what, five of seven surviving pilots from the Tuskegee Airmen are coming to Quincy Feb. 29.

The U.S. Forest Service is sponsoring the visit for Black History Month: Black Women in American History and Culture.

Forest Civil Rights Officer Sonya Jones’ friendship with Edith Roberts, widow of George “Spank” Roberts, brought about the unique opportunity.

Forest Supervisor Earl Ford encouraged Jones to pursue her connections with Roberts to bring about the visit.

Tuskegee Airmen events Feb. 29

Community presentation, Feather River College multi-purpose roon at 570 Golden Eagle Ave., Quincy.

Tuskegee Airmen and widows will be available 10 a.m. – noon. Admission is free. For more information, contact Karen Pierson at 283-0202, ext. 273.

Senior Nutrition Center luncheon, Veterans Hall at 274 Lawrence St., Quincy. Tuskegee Airmen will be at the center for lunch at noon. Menu includes turkey with all the trimmings. Meal is open to the public, but advance reservations are required. Cost is $2.50 for seniors and a suggested donation of $6 for all others. To reserve, call 283-0643.

“Red Tails” showing, Town Hall Theatre, Main Street, Quincy. Tuskegee Airmen will be on hand at 6:30 p.m.; movie starts at 7 p.m. Tickets $10; advance tickets available at Quincy Natural Foods, Carey Candy Co., Town Hall Theatre or online at plumasarts.org. The movie will also show at 7 p.m. March 1; regular admission applies.

Roberts isairmenb working with Jones, a recent recipient of the Lifetime Legacy Award from the National Council of Negro Women. Roberts, a schoolteacher during World War II, is expected to speak about the Tuskegee program’s efforts to fight racism and discrimination.

The pilots are the most well-known part of The Tuskegee Experience, which also includes all personnel, black or white, assigned to the program, perhaps as many as 20,000 people.

Tuskegee University’s website (tuskegee.edu/about_us/legacy_of_fame) provides a historical archive about the program, which began in 1941 at Tuskegee Army Air Field and continued into 1949.

Theopolis W. Johnson, researcher and historian, writes: “Anyone — man or woman, military or civilian, black or white … is considered to be a document original Tuskegee Airman (DOTA).”

Originally known as “Red Tails” for the distinctive red paint on their aircraft tails, the term Tuskegee Airmen stems from publication of “The Tuskegee Airmen — The Story of the Negro in the U.S. Air Force” by Charles E. Francis in 1955.

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Tusgee Airmen Facts

The Tuskegee Airmen served in the 332nd Fighter Group, including 99th, 100th, 301st and 302nd fighter squadrons.

Pilots of the 332nd earned:

1,031 Air Medals (766 with clusters)

96 Distinguished Flying Crosses

25 Bronze Stars

Eight-plus Purple Hearts, four Soldier Medals

Three Presidential Unit Citations

One Red Star of Yugoslavia

One Legion of Merit

One Silver Star

Collectively, the Congressional Medal of Honor

p style="text-align: left;">At the time the program began, what would become the U.S. Air Force was called the Army Air Forces. In 1939, the government approved a civilian pilot training program and Tuskegee University, then known as Tuskegee Institute, applied to become part of the program.

 

All the Tuskegee students taking the required written examination passed, a better pass rate than any other school in the South.

The Selective Service Act of 1940 ensured black Americans could enlist in all military branches, albeit often in menial roles or as part of “all-black” units. President Franklin D. Roosevelt announced blacks would train as pilots.

Through a rapid series of decrees and decisions, construction began on Tuskegee Air Field and a primary flight school was established at Tuskegee Institute in 1941.

In March 1942, Capt. Benjamin O. Davis Jr. and 2nd Lts. Mac Ross, Lemuel R. Custis, Charles H. DeBow Jr. and George S. Roberts became the first pilots to graduate. Eventually, 996 pilots from 44 classes graduated.

Members of the 332d Fighter Group and the 99th, 100th, 301st and 302nd Fighter Squadrons were the only black combat pilots in WWII, but not all of the group pilots were black, according to “Nine Myths About the Tuskegee Airmen,” a paper by Dr. Daniel L. Haulman, dated Oct. 21, 2011, posted on the Tuskegee website. Haulman is chief of the Organizational Histories Branch of the Air Force Historical Research Agency.

From the beginning, the Tuskegee Airmen faced daunting prejudice and discrimination. In late 1943, even before its first combat mission, Maj. Gen. Edwin J. House, in a memo to deputy commander Maj. Gen. John K. Cannon, suggested the 99th Fighter Squadron was ineffective and should be removed from combat.

A measure of the airmen’s success in overcoming those challenges can be seen in the legends that have grown up around them, some beginning even before the end of WWII: that they never lost a bomber, that they never lost a pilot and that some bomber groups would not fly without escort by the 332nd.

In fact, 84 airmen died overseas during WWII, whether in combat, training or non-combat incidents — 68 pilots were listed as killed or missing in action, as well as four enlisted personnel. Another thirty pilots were downed or captured.

In addition, they lost seven bombers while flying escort. This is still one of the best records of the war for bomber escort.

U.S. Air Force records reveal that Tuskegee Airmen flew 1,578 missions and 15,533 combat sorties between June 1943 and May 1945, and were responsible for 112 aerial kills.

Whether Red Tails or Tuskegee Airmen, these men, collectively and individually decorated and distinguished flyers, flew into history in defense of freedom at home and abroad.


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