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Tuskegee Airmen celebrate 81 years of aviation history


World War II was one of the deadliest wars in modern history. America was close to being on the losing side.

Additionally, Black Americans were fighting a war at home. During the war, segregation and Jim Crow were still going on in America, and, of course, this hatred continued into the military.  Black Americans were subjected to unfair treatment while serving their country.

Black Americans were deemed uneducated and unable to pilot fighter jets. As the war raged on, the government decided to allow Black people to become pilots.

In 1940 congress passed the Selective Service and Training Service Act. This peacetime draft law  ultimately gave birth to the Tuskegee Airmen and changed how Black Americans were perceived in military services.

While talking with the Vice President of the Tuskegee Airmen’s East Coast Chapter, Franklin Killebrew,  OW learned about his background in the U.S. Air Force and how, despite the Tuskegee Airmen’s success, Black people were treated less than compared to their White counterparts.

“In 1960, when I applied to the Air Force Academy, during this time, they still weren’t taking Black people in the academy, so I had to go straight to the Air Force,” said the retired Air Force Sergeant and retired Tuskegee University aerospace teacher. “Growing up in Georgia, there weren’t many job opportunities for Black People. I decided to go straight into the Air Force for a better opportunity in life.”

During the interview, Killebrew also gave a brief history of the storied Tuskegee Airmen, who have been profiled in movies like 2012’s  “Red Tails.”

“The Tuskegee Airmen started in March 1941, with 13 cadet officers that trained to be pilots,” Killebrew said. “In 1942 only five of the 13 trainees graduated with their wings, this was the beginning of the Airmen.”

From 1941 to 1946, with more than 44 graduated classes, the Tuskegee program amassed 930 points with experience flying single or twin jets. The army also trained navigators, bombardiers, radio operators, mechanics, trainers, and other support personnel. This bought the Tuskegee Airmen 14,000 crew members.

“The first combat unit sent on deployment was the 99th combat unit, and their commander was Shawn Davis, but soon after George S, “Spanky” Roberts became the first Black commander of the Tuskegee Airmen flying unit,” said Killibrew. “Their first mission was in Italy, where they destroyed convoy trains and eliminated the supplies for the enemy. They also protected the bombers from enemy planes.”

The Tuskegee Airmen ran 179 bomber missions and only lost 25 bombers. They also ran 1378 combat missions as a unit and destroyed 410 enemy units. But despite the airmen’s success, they and future generations of military service men still faced segregation and racial tension in the USA. Nonetheless, their courage and bravery led many Black men and women to join the military service.

Tuskegee Airmen are still celebrated today.

Every fourth Thursday in March marks a special day in Tuskegee Airmen history as it commemorates the day they were created. March 24 marked the 81st anniversary celebrating the achievements of the Tuskegee Airmen.

This year was extra special because the members of the Tuskegee Airmen were able to acknowledge one of the original members of the Airmen, celebrating his life during the event.

General Brigadier Charles Mcgee joined the Tuskegee Airmen in 1944 when he flew with the 301st and 332nd fighter squadrons escorting heavy bombers over Europe. Mcgee ran over 409 combat missions during his time in the military.

Receiving a standing ovation at the State of the Union event in 2020, Mcgee was one of the last surviving members of the Tuskegee Airmen group. Mcgee passed away in January, just two months before the anniversary. He was 102.

For more information about the Tuskegee Airmen, contact the Los Angeles chapter at (203) 973-8804.