boston.com your connection to The Boston Globe

Tuskegee pilots' perfect war record disputed

Some say planes were shot down

Tuskegee cadets lined up during World War II. A bomber pilot says he was shot down while being escorted by the airmen. (US Army Signal Corps/file 1942)

TUSKEGEE, Ala. -- Melissa MacDougal's junior high school project chronicles the history of America's first black military pilots so meticulously that it is displayed at the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site.

The tribute says "the 332 d Fighter Group never lost a bomber to enemy fire" -- a claim that has been made in speeches, history books, autobiographies, and newspaper articles for decades.

Now two historians say the pilots' perfect record is a myth.

The pair, Daniel Haulman of the Air Force Historical Research Agency at Maxwell-Gunter Air Force Base in Montgomery and William Holton of Tuskegee Airmen Inc., say the group's combat mission reports show that a few bombers being escorted by the airmen were shot down by German planes.

About 130 of the original 994 Tuskegee pilots are alive, and many are upset by what they view as an assault on the airmen's distinguished military record.

"I think this is being initiated by people who want to discredit the fact that we were unique," said retired Colonel Richard Macon, 85, of Detroit, who completed 18 combat missions before being captured by the Germans.

The historians' findings overshadowed a recent ceremony for the airmen at the Alabama Capitol in Montgomery.

Congress had voted to award the airmen the Gold Medal, Congress's most distinguished civilian award, but as the men gathered to meet Governor Bob Riley and launch a national fundraising drive for a memorial in Tuskegee, reporters questioned them about whether they had lost any bombers.

The controversial research has been supported by Warren Ludlum, a bomber pilot in World War II, who recently told the Associated Press that he was shot down by enemy planes over Austria in 1944 while being escorted by fighters piloted by Tuskegee Airmen. He said he was sure because he ended up in the same prisoner-of-war camp as one of the black airmen, Starling Penn.

However, that didn't convince Alan Gropman, author of "The Air Force Integrates: 1945-1964" and a professor at the National Defense University in Washington.

"The fact the two men were in same prisoner-of-war camp does not necessarily mean the Tuskegee Airmen were escorting those particular airplanes," he said, calling for more research.

A group of airmen plans to do just that.

Russell Davis, president of Tuskegee Airmen Inc. and a retired Air Force lieutenant general, said the men, who are in their late 80s, are too frail to travel to Alabama and Pennsylvania in the winter, but hope to examine the documents in the spring.

Despite the dispute, the historians, airmen, and others agree that the group's legacy rests not on whether they lost any bombers, but on the broader role they served in challenging fundamental stereotypes about intellectual ability.

The men who learned to fly in the small town of Tuskegee in east Alabama from 1941 to 1946 and became the 332 d Fighter Group were part of a military experiment. When Congress forced the Army Air Corps to form an all-black combat unit in 1941, a prevailing stereotype was that black men were not capable of being fighter pilots.

"You have to understand there was a general assumption back then that black people did not have innate intelligence or courage," said Alvin Thornton, professor of political science at Howard University in Washington. "Their role was crucially important -- on a par with all the struggles to overcome white supremacy."

Bomber pilots, Gropman said, often requested to be escorted by the Tuskegee fighter pilots because they would stay close to the bombers -- unlike other units that would abandon them for the glory of shooting down German fighters.

But Haulman and Holton said they simply wanted to set the historical record straight.

"If I didn't share my knowledge, I would be derelict in my duties as historian of the Tuskegee Airmen," said Holton. "Of course, this is painful. Some of the people I admire very much are incensed."

The contention that the airmen never lost a bomber may have originated from a letter of commendation Colonel Buck Taylor gave to Colonel Benjamin O. Davis Jr., the leader of the Tuskegee Airmen.

Davis, who died in 2002, recounts in his 1991 autobiography that Taylor "remarked that ours was a fine military organization: Among our accomplishments, we had achieved the distinction of never losing a single bomber to enemy fighters on an escort mission."

Haulman said several documents challenge that statement. Most significantly, a 1944 order awarding Davis the Distinguished Flying Cross praises him for "so skillfully disposing his squadrons that in spite of the large number of enemy fighters, the bomber formation suffered only a few losses."

At the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site, retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Herbert Carter, 87, said every Tuskegee pilot felt a special responsibility to have a perfect record.

"To be successful, we knew our performance would have to be above reproach and of such quality there would be no question of capability as pilots," he said. "Our failure would reflect and cast doubts, and reaffirm some of the biased thinking that we were inferior as a race."

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES
 
Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months
 Advanced search / Historic Archives