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In 1941, on the United States Air Corps base in Tuskegee, Alabama, a group of young African American men created history as the first colored fighter pilots in American history. During a global war against racism, these young men experienced extreme prejudice from their own allies. The 1995 film, The Tuskegee Airmen, illustrates the emotional and physical obstacles that the 332nd Fighter Group overcame to gain the respect of their peers and crush bigotry in the United States Air Corps.
The Tuskegee Air Base was the first American base to integrate and train African American pilots. While the colonel of the base advocated integration, the major opposed it, and the young black recruits faced hostility in every training exercise and drill they undertook. The major’s surly attitude and mistreatment of the colored troops led to a large number of deserters, and some men died in training. However, the strenuous circumstances strengthened the determination of the remaining recruits, and they completed their training and created the 332nd Fighter Group. After months of practice missions in the US, Eleanor Roosevelt visited the air base and insisted upon the deployment of the fighter group to Africa so that they could join other American forces fighting in World War II.
Even in Africa the fighter group was discriminated against, and although they performed admirably on ground target missions, false reports led to their near disbandment. At a hearing of the House Armed Services Committee, the men of the 332nd Fighter Group were finally assigned to combat missions due to testimony by their commanding officer. On their first mission the flying fortress they were assigned to protect failed to appear at the rendezvous point, but instead of returning to the air base, the pilots saved a different flying fortress from enemy fighters. Instead of showing gratitude, the pilots of the saved flying fortress were indignant that their saviors were black men. The pilots were outraged when the 332nd was assigned to them as their escort, but when one of the Tuskegee airmen lost his life in combat, they realized that the black pilots were no different from themselves. When the 332nd was not assigned to a Berlin air raid, the same pilots who previously demonstrated racist ideas requested their presence. After years of fighting for their country while their country fought them, the Tuskegee Airmen finally received justice and the respect that they deserved.
During a time when “separate but equal” was the law, the Tuskegee Airmen had the unique challenge of fighting a war against racism for a country that denied them the full rights of a true citizen. The American government was highly hypocritical, claiming to be anti-Nazis while enacting watered-down versions of oppression in their own country. They deemed the presence of African American pilots on the Tuskegee Air Base an experiment, and they nearly abandoned the project due to “scientific research” which stated that African Americans were too ignorant to correctly pilot an airplane. This sentiment was dispelled once African American pilots were given the chance to perform in combat. A report by Dr. Daniel L. Haulman of the Air Force Historical Research Agency proves that the 332nd pilots were equal to white pilots in every way, stating, “Only three of the eleven bombardment and fighter groups that went to Berlin on March 24, 1945 earned the Distinguished Unit Citation (DUC) for the mission. They included the 463d and 483d Bombardment Groups and the 332d Fighter Group. In other words, two of six, or only a third, of the participating bombardment groups earned the decoration, and only one of five of the fighter groups.” Reports like this one are hard to dispute, but the Tuskegee Airmen had to fight for years in order to achieve this respect.
The hostile environment in which the 332nd Fighter Group fought discouraged them from completing training, barred them from running combat missions, and made them a target of incessant racist comments. All of this combined to create frustrated soldiers who were determined to fight and seek justice. The 332nd Fighter Group became a formidable force, and their drive and bravery forced their fellow soldiers to recognize them as equals. Everything that was meant to discourage the Tuskegee Airmen only strengthened them, and with this mental fortitude they gained victory over racism abroad and at home.
The film, The Tuskegee Airmen, illustrated the historical prejudice that we learned about during class lectures. It emphasized the degree of racism that was found in everyday actions in America during World War II, and it portrayed an important point in history when black men were finally integrated into the Air Corps. The film also provided insight on the political goings-on of the day, and showed how discrimination invaded the political arena. The House Armed Services Committee was ready to dissolve the Tuskegee Airmen Experiment, but progressive activists like Eleanor Roosevelt managed to maintain the program despite racist protests. A unique aspect of the Tuskegee Airmen that the film depicted was the sense of community that black soldiers shared with one another. Despite their geographical origins, every black man who joined the 332nd Fighter Group could describe situations in which they had been discriminated against. They coped with the pain of hate crimes by joking bitterly about them, and like the other forms of hostility they met, they turned these memories into motivation to overcome racial barriers. With such hatred present in America less than a century ago, it is truly a victory that we now call the Tuskegee Airmen great American heroes.
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