Pilots of the Caribbean
A royal pain in the air
The contribution of Black pilots from the Caribbean during the Second World War bears strong similarity to that of the now legendary Tuskegee Airmen, according to World War II Pasadena historian and aviation buff, Herman James.
Proudly stating that he had seen “Red Tails” twice and thought the movie was great, James still initially had some reservations. He was not high on the tame dialogue between pilots during dogfights, believing that in real life there would have been a hot trail of profanity flying through the air at speeds much faster than the P-51 Mustangs the Tuskegee Airmen flew or the Messerschmitts powered by Mercedes-Benz engines that lofted the German Luftwaffe pilots.
Then James pauses, reflecting on his statement and does a slight about-face.
“Maybe not,” he says. “There are no atheists in foxholes and maybe these guys were c lose to God twenty-four-seven after experiencing the racism and strenuous training they had to endure.”
James hopes someone in Britain will some day produce a movie about “our West Indian Brothers,” he says. “The courage of these men is not generally known, even to the present Black British population.”
The call to aid Britain during World War II was accepted by nearly 6,000 West Indian recruits of African descent who volunteered to serve in the Royal Air Force. They entered service during the beginning of the conflict in 1939.
The West Indians flew Spitfire Fighters, which were comparable to the P-51 Mustangs flown by the Tuskegee Airmen, but they also flew the huge multi-engine Lancaster Bombers, Sterling Bombers, and the all-plywood high-speed Mosquito.
Tuskegee had graduated B-25 bomber flight crews destined to the Pacific theater of the war, but they were too late to participate in combat missions because the United States dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, effectively ending the war in April 1945. Of the West Indians serving against the Axis powers—Germany, Italy and Japan—103 were decorated.
The highest medal earned was the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Distinguished Squadron Leader.
Those of Caribbean heritage expected to be warmly welcomed upon arriving in Britain, but most faced similar discrimination as the Tuskegee Airmen faced, but not as severe. The Tuskegee Airmen, James believes, were exposed to more emotional scarring than their West Indian counterparts who grew up in the more racially tolerable British Commonwealth.
The formal color bar in Britain had been lifted in 1939; however, according to the BBC (British Broadcasting Co.), Prime Minister Winston Churchill had directed by telegram that every British embassy, the High Commission and the British military do whatever they could to prevent Blacks from serving in the armed forces.
As a result of Churchill’s actions, some West Indians became Canadian citizens and were thereby able to join Royal Air Force (RAF). Between 1940 and 1942 a total of 3,000 West Indians enlisted in the RAF. This was a small number in comparison to the overall size of the RAF, which was about 55,000, but the extra aid was sorely needed due to a manpower shortage in Britain. It proved to be enough to make a difference in the war effort.
Individuals of West Indian African heritage donned their thermal protective clothing and Mae West life jackets every day, just as their White peers did, and climbed their way up to 15,000 feet to conduct bombing or fighter escort missions over Europe. James believes the British failure to segregate squadrons was actually a strategy to control the behavior of Black pilots and crew members.
Flying in integrated crews with a White majority allowed the British airmen to control the Black RAF fighters. This unified integrated fighting force would not occur within the ranks of the United States until 1948 under President Harry S. Truman. However, James feels Black RAF pilots may have encountered less racism and hardship compared to the Americans living under Jim Crow, although it did exist.
Looking at a serrated-edge photo of 602 squadron, James points to a Black pilot named Julian Merryshow standing off a bit to the right of the other White fliers, almost as an outcast. Clearly, he does not seem to feel completely part of the group.
He points to another example of British racism: Sgt. Arthur Walrond from Barbados was a wireless operator and air gunner on a Sterling Bomber. He had an encounter with an American soldier on June 23, 1943, in a dance hall in Britain after asking a White girl to dance with him. A fight broke out and he was severely beaten and arrested by U.S. military police. He complained about his treatment in a letter to the government on June 29, but was killed that same night in a mission over Germany.
In 1995, HBO released the movie “The Tuskegee Airmen,” a docudrama about the Black pilots, “the first full-length movie that Black kids could watch and learn about Black military pilots,” says James.
“The West Indian pilots made it to the silver screen in 1953 for a split second,” he says, recalling that in that year the movie “Appointment in London,” about a squadron of RAF bomber pilots, was released. Of course, the screenwriters were aware that Black pilots flew the Lancaster Bombers and included a lone Black actor playing a pilot in the movie. The scene only lasted a few seconds, but that was a milestone.
James believes one of the scriptwriters, John Woodridge, may have been responsible.
Woodridge was a commander of the 105th RAF squadron in 1943 and may have inserted the scene into the movie as a mark of recognition and respect.
James has been waiting for the release of a documentary based on the West Indian aviators and believes that Maryland attorney Gabriel Christian is working on both the documentary and the movie.
Christian spoke with OW from his Maryland office, saying how happy he was about “Red Tails.”
“I took my entire staff to see it and I returned to see it again with my kids,” says Christian. “I am very passionate about the movie because my dad passed away on Oct. 7, 2011.”
Christian’s dad was a West Indian RAF pilot. He feels the story of the Black RAF pilots was suppressed because quite a few of them went on to become attorneys and became active in the British and African civil rights movements. “These guys were instrumental in representing Black political prisoners throughout the Caribbean and Africa. Several attorneys that defended Jomo Kenyatta, the founding father of Kenya, were Black former WW2 RAF pilots. According to Christian, the British government felt these outspoken pilots were a threat to the British Commonwealth.
Following the war, the commercial airline industry in Britain and Canada ignored the former Black RAF pilots, just as the United States commercial industry ignored the Tuskegee Airmen.
According to James, “You would have thought at least the bomber pilots would have been hired by a passenger airline or a cargo air freight company. Civilian commercial airlines will hire bomber pilots and military transport pilots a lot quicker because their flying is not as cocky as a former fighter pilot.”
The Caribbean pilots postwar lives paralleled the Tuskegee Airmen also in the sense that they went on to become businessmen, doctors, attorneys and politicians.
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