Beyond FINESSE: The Tuskegee Airmen
The Tuskegee Airmen were among the first pioneers of racial integration in the U.S. military. Since they happened to be pilots like my dad, they rank way up there among my personal favorite figures in American history. I guess that’s why I’d have loved to have been at today’s ceremony in which more than 300 Tuskegee Airmen and widows of deceased Airmen were presented with the Congressional Gold Medal. A New York Sun editorial points out that President Bush and some of his harshest critics were scheduled to preside at the ceremony at the Capitol, “for a cause so just that it bridges partisan divides.”
The resolution to award the Congressional Gold Medal to the Tuskegee Airmen is quoted in the Sun editorial as stating, in part:
“In 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt overruled his top generals and ordered the creation of an all-Black flight training program. Due to the rigid system of racial segregation that prevailed in the United States during World War II, Black military pilots were trained at a separate airfield built near Tuskegee, Alabama. They became known as the ‘Tuskegee Airmen.’ The Tuskegee Airmen inspired revolutionary reform in the Armed Forces, paving the way for full racial integration in the Armed Forces. They overcame the enormous challenges of prejudice and discrimination, succeeding despite obstacles that threatened failure.”
Every description I’ve read about the Airmen states that they “flew with distinction” during World War II. The Tuskegee Airmen boasted more than 400 pilots who were deployed overseas, with 150 who lost their lives in training or combat. Despite an established reputation bolstered by the award of multiple Presidential Unit Citations, numerous Silver Stars, 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses, 14 Bronze Stars, and more than 700 Air Medals, the Tuskegee Airmen continued to battle racism when they returned home after the war.
But that only made them more determined to succeed. Two Tuskegee Airmen—Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., and Daniel “Chappie” James—eventually became the first African-American four-star generals.