While television audiences sat enthralled for hours by the "The Winds of War" earlier this month, a group of World War II veterans in the District turned to "The Black Eagles," a public television series about their black fighter pilot unit, the Tuskegee Airmen.
Ernest Davis Jr., president of the East Coast chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen Inc., said the public television broadcast presented a significant part of World War II that has never been acknowledged by historians or in fictional accounts.
"Although I stopped watching it The Winds of War because you didn't see a black face . . . I was kind of glad it came on," Davis said. "It set the stage to let anyone who watched both programs know what was going on when we were out there."
Known as the "Red Tails" because of markings on their P-51 Mustangs, the 332nd Fighter Group, an all-black unit activated under former president Roosevelt in 1941 and trained at Tuskegee Ala. Army Air Field, racked up an impressive record, flying more than 15,000 combat sorties and downing 261 enemy aircraft in North Africa and Italy during the last two years of the war.
Altogether the Tuskegee-trained unit included about 1,000 pilots and thousands of support workers. Notable former members of the 332nd are Rep. Louis Stokes (D-Ohio); Detriot Mayor Coleman Young; former Manhattan Borough president Percy Sutton; Gen. Daniel (Chappie) James, the first black four-star Air Force general; and former Michigan Rep. Charles C. Diggs.
The men who shared that time and place have organized 20 chapters across the United States and Europe, dedicated to uniting those who shared the frustrations, aspirations and triumphs of being pioneers in black military aviation.
The 10-year-old Washington chapter of Tuskegee Airmen, about half of whose 160 members trained at Tuskegee, meets monthly at the Bolling Air Force Base officers club. The formal business session is usually devoted to discussion of the speakers bureau, scholarships and the Civil Air Patrol sponsored by the chapter. That portion of the meeting is often followed by reminiscences among old tent buddies and, a favorite pastime of old soldiers, the refighting the battles.
Ernest Davis, 60, of Alexandria, who in 1971 worked with an Air Force group in New Mexico researching space transportation systems, said the black airmen's war experience was largely an attempt to "disprove the belief that blacks didn't have the coordination and mental capacity to be pilots."
Retired Gen. Benjamin O. Davis Jr., 70, of Alexandria, the first black Air Force general, recalled in an interview the "tragedy of segregation and the implied attitude of not being fit to be associated with."
He said the Tuskegee Airmen "demonstrated that black people could fly and operate fighter aircraft in combat" and brought respect for blacks in the military. The 332nd's performance "set the stage for the integration of blacks into the Air Corps," he said.
"Being a black pilot in the 1940s was like being a pro athlete today," chuckled Clarence (Lucky) Lester, a former pilot with the 332nd.
"We knew we were special, that we would have to prove something. This was the first chance blacks had had outside of working in the kitchen or the possiblity of being a truck driver," Lester said.
On Friday, Lester and Davis will join other former fliers at a one-day symposium at the Smithsonian Institution's Air and Space Museum to highlight the exhibit "Black Wings." The symposium, "The American Black in Aviation: A Decade of Change 1939-1949," will review the social, political and racial implications of that era.
Although the history of blacks in U.S. military aviation begins at Tuskegee Army Air Field, the legacy of black flight goes back to World War I in France, where blacks got the training they were denied at home.
American Eugene Jacques Bullard earned the name "Black Swallow of Death" as a fighter pilot for the French Flying Corps. Bessie Coleman, a Chicago manicurist and restaurateur who became this country's first black licensed pilot in 1922, also trained in France.
Because whites often refused to sell to them, a number of blacks formed flying clubs in the late 1920s to buy planes, train members and sponsor air shows and long-distance flights to promote aviation.
In the 1930s, the activities of flying clubs and the Coffey School of Aeronautics in Chicago trained black pilots, engineers and mechanics. That era also saw the first transcontinental flight by black aviators James H. Banning and Thomas C. Allen, as well as other landmarks in aviation.
The Civilian Pilot Training Program, established in 1939 to create a pool of civilian pilots for military training, accepted and trained 300 black pilots by 194l. But the black graduates were never called to military duty because there was no all-black unit in the Army Air Corps.
This changed in 1941 when the NAACP sued the War Department on behalf of a Howard University-trained pilot to secure the promised military training that black CPTP graduates had been denied. Soon afterwards, the Air Corps created the 99th fighter squadron, with Benjamin O. Davis Jr. in command.
Tuskegee Airmen chapter meetings give former pilots, such as the District's George Haley, a chance to relive the "camaraderie of friends and fellow pilots"--the part of the war he remembers most vividly.
"We really looked after each other. A lot of my friends and all of my tentmates overseas came home, which I consider more than good fortune," said Haley, 62, a native of Bath, N.Y. He noted that most of them now live in the Washington area, including retired Col. John J. Suggs of the District and retired Maj. Gwynne W. Pierson of the District.
Denied entry to the Air Corps, Suggs, a graduate of the Corps' CPTP at Indiana University, became a civilian instructor for the Navy and was later called to the Tuskegee program.
Flying was one escape from racism, said Suggs, 67, who retired from the Air Force in 1968. "You were independent . . . pitting yourself against a machine, the elements and therefore escaping a segregated environment."
More was expected of the 332nd than other units, he recalled. Black pilots, whose abilities were always questioned, were at first restricted to escorting bombers flown by whites to target destinations, he said.
"If we lost bombers, it was a reflection on our performance," he said. "If other units all of them white lost bombers, it was a circumstance of the war."
Blacks were not allowed in U.S. officers' clubs, Suggs recalled, but British and other foreign troops, who "treated you with respect as to your rank and position," changed the black airmen. "You began to realize that you were fully a man, as capable as any other human being," he said. "Therefore, when we came back, we weren't the people they sent overseas. We were all out to change the system no matter what the cost."
Gwynne Pierson, 60, a professor of criminology at Howard University and a former Los Angeles police officer, said he applied to the Air Corps because "all I had was a high school diploma and I was not looking forward to walking in the infantry during the war."
Pierson said the Tuskegee training "was a program intended to fail." When he saw a class ahead of his at Tuskegee reduced from about 80 to six by graduation, he said, "we knew what we were up against."
Lester, 60, said he earned the nickname "Lucky" after surviving several missions in which everyone was "either shot up or shot down but me."
Lester, now a District resident, came to the Tuskegee program in early 1943, after earning a private pilot's license in the CPTP course at West Virginia State College.
Lester remembers proudly the day he shot down three German planes on one mission, in contrast to the earlier humiliation of "having to go through a segregated train ride from Montgomery Ala. to Cincinnati," after his Tuskegee training.
Gen. Davis and Col. Alan G. Gropman, author of "The Air Force Integrates," maintain the performance of the 332nd was instrumental in the integration of the American military.
Davis' promotion to commander of a white flier group in Korea and to general in 1953 were milestones, as was the elevation of James to commander of the North American Air Defense Command in Colorado Springs in the 1970s. Blacks piloted helicopters and spotter planes for all branches of the military in the Korean and Vietnam conflicts.
Today, there are four blacks in the space program: Physicist Ronald E. McNair, Air Force Lt. Col. Frederick D. Gregory and Marine Maj. Charles F. Bolden Jr. are scheduled for space shuttle duty. The fourth, Air Force Lt. Col. Guion S. Bluford, is scheduled to become the first black American in space with the launching of the shuttle July 4.