Tuskegee Airmen Speak at SEMAA Graduation Ceremony

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in Famous Aviators

The Tuskegee airmen escorted bombers into Europe during World War II and equality into America.

A representative group of the famous Tuskegee airmen spoke of their proud heritage to a group of boys and girls at recent meeting of the NASA sponsored Science, Engineering, Mathematics and Aerospace Academy (SEMAA) in Warren County, NC.

Tuskegee Airman

The Tuskegee Air Corps training program was initiated at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama in 1941 at the instigation of General Henry H. “Hap” Arnold. It was not a popular move at the time. Many Army Air Corps officers viewed the program with suspicion and amusement.

Arnold was not easily intimidated. He was one of first pilots taught to fly by the Wright brothers at Huffman Prairie Field in 1911 and qualified to fly with less than four hours flying time. He went on to become a five-star general and commanded the U.S. Army Air Forces in World War II. Huffman Field is now a part of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.

The first five Black-Americans to qualify as military pilots graduated from Tuskegee in March of 1942. Army Captain Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. a West Point graduate, was one of the graduates. After graduation he was promoted to lieutenant colonel and become commanding officer of the all black 99th Fighter Squadron.

In 1944, a significant event occurred that made the Tuskegee Airman famous. Bombers flying over Northern France and Germany without fighter escort were being shot down at a high rate, 114 in February. Davis volunteered his group to provide the high-risk fighter escort.

Davis’s group was now designated the 332nd and was equipped with P-47 Thunderbolts. On delivery of the airplanes the ground crew painted the tails red and from then on they were known as the Red Tail Squadron.

The Davis’s Red Tails lost very few bombers during 200 escort missions. They were so successful that bomber pilots requested them as their escorts. Representative of their success was this message from a bomber commander: “Your formation flying and escort was the best we have ever seen.” Davis, now Colonel Davis, received the Distinguished Flying Cross.

By the end of World War II, almost 1,000 Black pilots had earned their wings during the time frame of 1941 to 1946. More than half served overseas. Many earned Air Medals in combat and more than 150 earned Distinguished Flying Crosses. Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. would earn a general’s star, becoming the first black Air Force general.

Because of their distinguished record, when the war ended, the War Department was pressured to reassess their segregated military policy. President Truman subsequently issued Executive Order 9981 that integrated the Air Force (the Air Force became a separate service in September 1947).

Tuskegee Institute, now Tuskegee University, is flourishing today with more than 200,000 visitors a year. Booker T. Washington founded the school. Agricultural chemist George Washington Carver discovered 300 uses for peanuts there. Famous black poet and friend of Orville Wright Paul Dunbar wrote the school alma mater.

The National Park Service is building the $29 million Tuskegee Airman Memorial that’s expected to draw 400,000 visitors annually after opening in 2007.

Mr. Leonard Hunter, President of the Tuskegee Chapter in Goldsboro, NC provided a strong message to SEMAA students. He told them (majority of which were black) that if the airmen could succeed despite the handicaps of discrimination, they could succeed now with the opportunities they have. “It would be a disservice to yourself and your parents if you didn’t. You can do it!”

Mrs. Lavon-De Driver, wife of one of the attending airman and historian of the chapter, didn’t leave the girls out of the discussion by indicating that there were many black woman involved in providing support services for the Tuskegee airmen during the war.

Update: The Tuskegee Airman were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in early 2006. There were about 40 Tuskegee airman from North Carolina during World War II.

About SEMAA:

SEMAA is an exciting science program featuring hands-on fun activities. NASA substantially funds the program’s curriculum and a computer-enhanced laboratory. Unfortunately, budgets cuts at NASA may result in the termination of the program.

Three repeating Saturday sessions are offered during the academic school year. Each session last eight weeks. In addition there is a summer camp during June. All sessions are free. All kids at the Warren County site with perfect attendance are provided with an expense free trip to Washington, D.C. during the summer. As if that wasn’t enough, kids are given a free airplane ride by the EAA.

Check out the SEMAA web site, http://www.semaa.net.

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