TUSKEGEE, Alabama (Reuters) - The first black U.S. Air Force unit will finally receive national recognition this week for fighting a double war -- one against the Nazis abroad, the other against racial segregation at home.
President George W. Bush will honor the surviving members of the Tuskegee Airmen with a Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian award given by Congress, at a ceremony on Thursday at the U.S. Capitol.
The airmen helped lay the groundwork for the civil rights movement and influenced President Harry Truman’s decision to desegregate the army in 1948.
But just as their success is being recognized, one aspect of the story is in dispute.
The “Red Tails” of the 99th Fighter Squadron -- so called because some of the planes they piloted had distinctive red tails -- flew some 1,578 missions from their base in North Africa, destroyed over 260 enemy aircraft, sank one enemy destroyer and demolished numerous enemy installations, according to military records.
For decades, they were also credited with never having lost a bomber under their escort. Yet Daniel Haulman of the Air Force Historical Research Agency said some of the many bombers escorted were in fact shot down.
Haulman, responding to a request from three airmen, analyzed five days of mission reports of the 332d Fighter Group and compared them with reports from the bomber groups they escorted and records of planes downed.
Over the five days, 25 bombers were shot down, though most were lost on missions where the number of bombers exceeded the number of fighters, he said.
“I don’t think it (their reputation) will be diminished at all because of the achievements that they accomplished -- they don’t really need that statement: ‘Never lost a bomber’,” he said, adding: “No other group could have done a better job.”
‘BOY, CARRY MY BAGS’
The 99th Fighter Squadron was set up after the army reluctantly agreed to train a group of black pilots at a remote air school in Tuskegee, Alabama, keeping them separate from the rest of the army in line with its policy of segregation.
In all, about 1,000 pilots were trained, and also ground crew. Fewer than a third of the pilots are still alive to receive the medal.
“We had the feeling that the program was designed to fail,” said one of the pilots, retired Air Force Lt. Col. Charles Dryden, who graduated from the school in 1942.
“Our mantra was that we dared not fail because if we did, the doors of future aviation would be closed to black people forever,” he said in an interview at his home in Atlanta.
Dryden, 86, who stayed in the Air Force after World War Two, recalled the “horrible discrimination” he faced and said he decided to stay away from whites in Alabama as far as possible to avoid breaking the racial mores of the south.
He was particularly incensed to see that German prisoners of war were given access to whites-only facilities at a base in South Carolina that were off-limits to him.
But his memories focus on how his own character was forged in the crucible of combat and racial injustice.
“I had a deep feeling of fear,” he said of his first combat encounter. “It wasn’t about the enemy, it was about myself ... But the first time I saw the enemy I ran (flew) toward him and I knew that I was a tiger and not a pussy cat.”
On graduating from the flying school, he rode the train back to New York wearing his uniform.
“As I was proudly preening my way through the terminal a little white lady said: ‘Here Boy. Carry my bags.’” The remark angered him but taught him a lesson. “It humbled me. It taught me: It’s not the uniform that counts, it’s what’s inside.”
In recent years the airmen’s story has been retold as a universal tale of triumph over adversity. Dryden published one of several airmen’s memoirs, HBO released a film on the story in 1995 and director George Lucas is said to be developing a movie about the Red Tails.
But it would be wrong to isolate the airmen’s achievement from the record of black military service that dates back to the U.S. Revolutionary War, said John Butler, professor at the University of Texas and author of a book on army integration.
What the airmen did should be seen as part of the record of black achievement under segregation in the South that included the establishment of numerous black colleges.
Tuskegee University, set up to educate blacks by Booker T. Washington, lobbied the Air Force to train the airmen at its own pioneering school for black civilian pilots at Moton Field, land now being restored as a national park and historic site.
“The Tuskegee airmen grew straight out of this culture of achievement and built on it,” he said in an interview. “The segregation was part of the trigger that enabled them to succeed.”
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