Tuskegee Airmen Documentary


(instrumental music) Stephen Seals: It began
with the dream to fly. A dream that would
be realized only after sacrifice and
hardships passed. It would take decades
for a special group of airmen to be recognized
for all of their efforts that paved the way
for so many today. Hampton, Virginia is
not only the oldest English speaking city in the
United States of America, it is also a large part of the United States
military history. Tuskegee Airmen were the
first African-Americans to fly combat missions in the United States military
during World War II. It is estimated that
approximately 300 Tuskegee airmen are still living in the United States. Hampton Roads is
home to some of the legendary Airmen from
the Tuskegee Experiment. Their experiences have shaped and inspired
younger generations. They share stories from a time when hardships pushed a
man’s will to persevere. Hello, I’m Steven Seals. Join me as we explore
little known details about the contributions
these Airmen made to the United States military and as they share their thoughts on the challenges they faced. A study by The Army
War College in 1925 evaluated African-Americans
intelligence and physical standards
in the military. The study claimed that Blacks were not fit for
combat and lacked the ability to lead others. The findings were
used to prevent African-Americans
from training in military aviation programs
before World War II. The interest in flying
sophisticated aircraft stemmed from the arrival
of the Hindenburg in 1937. Once people saw the
Hindenburg’s massive, floating body interest
in aviation increased. Dr. Eric Sheppard, the
Dean of Engineering and Technology at
Hampton University is the son of Tuskegee airman Sergeant James Sheppard. His father recalls seeing the Hindenburg as a child. Eric: He loved airplanes. He loved anything that
had to do with flying. He remembers seeing
the Hindenburg fly over New York
the day it blew up. Anything to do with
flying he loves. Stephen: The terms
“Tuskegee Experiment” and “Tuskegee Experience”
are often used to describe what the
Tuskegee Airmen encountered. Dr. Sheppard says that the words “experiment” and
“experience” are terms used after desegregation
of the military. Eric: My dad usually
points out that they didn’t really
go around saying they were the Tuskegee. A lot of those names
came after the fact, at least as far as he says. I think it was an experiment. I think they were
put there and really from both sides, whether
you were a pro or con, saying this is the opportunity to show that we could do this. It was an experience. Stephen: The Tuskegee
Airmen were not the first
African-Americans to fly. Civilians could
fly if they passed proper aviation exams. World War II was looming. The desire to fight
in the war began to inflate among many men. The Army War College Study would not hold up for long. After pressure from
Civil Rights groups and African-American
papers like the “Pittsburgh Courier”
the Tuskegee Experiment was soon formed by
the Army Air Corps. This pilot training
initiative was created by President
Franklin D. Roosevelt to appease Black voters that helped him get
elected in 1940. The airmen completed
their training in 1940. A year later a
squadron was created and based in Tuskegee, Alabama. The Tuskegee Institute
was the ideal location for training because of
their facilities and climate. There were several
other institutions that were involved in training African-Americans to fly. Locally Hampton
Institute was sending men to Tuskegee, Alabama,
where they could complete their training. The Tuskegee
Experiment was said to have been designed to fail. For the first class of the
Tuskegee Airmen graduates about a dozen men
tested for their pilot’s exam and
only five passed. The testing was rigorous
and challenging. Eric: There was some
resistance to allowing African-Americans in
the segregated south to participate in the
good stuff, so to speak. Some who were very weary said “If you’re going to be training “I’m going to make
it very hard.” They were given lots of exams. They were given difficult exams and sort of made to
train a little bit longer than some of the others. The expectation was obvious that many in the country felt. They just assumed that
this was not going to work. To their credit the
Airmen came through. They didn’t all pass, but those who did passed
with flying colors. Stephen: The widow
of bomber pilot Lieutenant Colonel
Donald Thomas, Armelia Thomas says
that her husband almost didn’t make it into the program even though he passed
his initial pilot exams. Mrs. Thomas says that he
was recruited in the north and once he came
south he had to take the same exam a second time. After waiting for his results he was called in
by his superiors. Armelia: When Donald
went in he was told that he had failed the test. He said he was so shocked because academics was
not a problem for him. He had always been
an A-B student. He said he knew that he
had passed this test, but they told him
that he had failed. He said tears came
into his eyes. He said he was embarrassed
he didn’t want to cry in front of the officers
that were there, but he was so
shocked and he said he knew that he really
looked like he was shocked. He said he saluted
and he turned around. He went back to the door. They said that he was dismissed. He said he put his
hand on the doorknob and the captain called
him back and said “Cadet Thomas,” and
he said “Yes, sir.” He said “I was just
looking at your papers “here and I made a mistake. “You didn’t fail the
test, you passed.” He said that he was so elated. He said that he went
back and he was just jumping and running and shouting and he had such
a wonderful time, but he said for a moment there he thought that
he was a failure. Stephen: Failure was not
an option for these men. The Airmen were in
need of a leader and at the helm was
Colonel Benjamin O. Davis, one of the pioneers of
the Tuskegee Airmen. Davis was one of the first
five African-American graduates to earn
silver wings in 1942. A West Point graduate
who finished 35th in a class of 278 white cadets saw to it that the
men were able to fly in military combat situations once they completed training. Many looked up to
Colonel Davis and revered him as an elite leader. Eventually, Colonel
Davis would leave the 332nd Fighter Group
and they would transfer to Italy in February
1944 for combat missions. Eric: Benjamin Davis
was the only one who could have led them. The one thing that
they respected was the fact that when
he was at West Point, he went for four
years and other than required discussions
he was, you know, nobody talked to him. I think they all saw
that he passed the test and he was the one. He wasn’t always
their favorite person, but I’ve always
heard from people that he had to be the first. He was the only one around and his father was
a general as well, so they knew that he understood what it would take to get there. Stephen: Chief Master
Sergeant Grant Williams, like many men was drafted
into the military in 1942 and started his training
in Fort Dix, New Jersey. Once basic training was complete he boarded a troop train and arrived in
Tuskegee, Alabama. Grant: Upon arrival
there we found that there were some men
being trained to fly. I’m talking about men of color. That was completely new, a new thing and most of
us who were in that group didn’t know what it was about. We thought we were going there for basic training
and that we would be sent to another
base for assignment, but rather than that
what happened when we completed basic
they assigned us to fill spaces for
the support unit which was designed to
support the fighter squadron. Stephen: Armelia Thomas
says that her husband Donald was unprepared for what he would experience
in Tuskegee, Alabama, but his mother’s wisdom
was kept close to mind. Thomas, a native of
Detroit, Michigan, had different experiences of segregation and discrimination. Armenia: Being northerners
I had never been south and he was trying
to tell me about discrimination in the south, of segregation in the south. When he first went to Tuskegee his mother told him “I
want you to be silent “most of the time you’re there “because you don’t
anything about the south “and we don’t want you
to say the wrong thing.” He said it was a
good while before he really started talking until he saw the
beautiful Black nurses. He said he was always
getting into trouble because he was always
looking at the nurses when he was supposed
to be looking straight forward instead
of somewhere else. Stephen: Armelia Thomas
had known her husband for most of her life. They didn’t marry until
after World War II. Colonel Thomas gave 37
years of active service including World War
II, the Korean War, Vietnam and even the
Cuban Missile Crisis. He flew over 19 different
aircraft during his career. His wife shares how
he became interested in becoming a pilot. Armelia: His mother and
father were very, very interested in the
veteran’s activities. In the beginning of
I guess around early in 1943 some Tuskegee
Airmen of the original group came to Selfridge
Air Force Base, which is about 25
miles from Detroit. Donald’s father took
him to Selfridge to see these Black pilots because that was really, really- well we didn’t have any. They were still in
training though. Donald was so impressed. Up until that time he always
wanted to be a doctor, but when he saw
the men in uniform and how proud
everybody was of them he decided he wanted to fly and that’s when it
first got in his mind. He immediately
went to a recruiter to try and get to be
part of the experiment, but they told him
that he was too young to come back next year. As he was coming through
school in Tuskegee he was six-one, and he was
too tall for the fighters. So he started as a bomber, but he flew 19 different
type of aircraft over his career. I know the last two
he flew were the sea mines and the 141. He was considered
a bomber pilot. Stephen: Many of
the men experienced different levels
of discrimination during a time when
“separate but equal” was supposed to apply to all. The Tusgakee Airmen
overcame obstacles that denied them
leadership roles and training opportunities. Sergeant Harry Quinton
was an airplane mechanic that had heard of the
Tuskegee Experiment and was trying to figure out how to become a
part of the program. His eyesight didn’t
pass the aviation exam, but that didn’t stop him from pursing his goal of
being near airplanes. He enlisted in the
Army Reserve and was assigned to
the Army Air Corps. He was made a part of the 477th Bombardment Group in Augusta, Georgia. Sergeant Quinton says
“there wasn’t much “difference between
civilian life “and military service.” Harry: Well, it was
an all Black army, so to speak, because
everything was segregated. The training was segregated. The units were segregated. It wasn’t much different from my civilian experience. It was like a transformation going from one
segregated society into a segregated service. Of course, it was something- they still follow that policy of “separate and equal,”
but I always said it was “separate and unequal.” Stephen: Despite how
they were treated Sergeant Quinton knew
that the Tusgakee Airmen were a part of
something special, something that
seemed inconceivable for African-Americans
before World War II. Harry: We knew
that we were doing something special
that no other Blacks have done anything
like this before. This was in an age
where during the time people were still
talking about Lindberg. I mean when a plane flew over you’d run outside and look
up to the sky to see it. Fighter pilots, people
flying airplanes were looked upon as top, elite
people, special people. Black people were
looked upon as- Most of us thought
we were all ignorant, dumb, cowards and whatever, and to put us in an
airplane and we could fly those things just
like anybody else. We knew, we knew we were doing something special, yeah. Grant: Little by little,
we found how to survive. We found how to get
along with those people who weren’t anxious
to work with us and even those who didn’t
want us to succeed. We found ways to
convert them to the idea that we were human
beings like they are. Stephen: Tusgakee
Airmen were not allowed to partake in combat right after their training scenarios. The “Pittsburgh Courier”
exposed a number of issues when the Airmen had
completed training, but were not yet participating
in actual combat. First Lady Eleanor
Roosevelt was instrumental in getting the Airmen
directly involved in World War II combat
when she visited Moton Airfield in
Tuskegee, Alabama in 1941. She flew with African-American
civilian pilot Charles Chief Anderson. Upon her own
initiative she helped convince her husband president Franklin D. Roosevelt that the pilots were
ready for combat. Eric: Press was important. I guess back then it
was the “Negro Press” was significant first of all to get the word out
to the negro community to let them know about
these opportunities amongst the historically Black colleges and universities
which is where most of the folks of
color at that time were going to college. You had to have some
college education in order to be a pilot. Of course, to put
pressure on the greater community to show that they were pilots of color and they were folks flying
these aircrafts. They were people
who were available. The famous picture
of Eleanor Roosevelt in the plane with Chief
Anderson was significant. If that picture hadn’t
gone out through the press then nobody would have ever known what
was going on there. Stephen: Tusgakee Airmen
continued to prove that they were more than capable pilots, technicians,
and bombardiers by overcoming prejudices
and segregation by rising through
the ranks to become a respected fighter group
during World War II. Grant: We knew that
we were being tested to see whether we could do what we were supposed to do or not. We were taught that
we had to be sure that we did things right, otherwise we would fail and that was the
idea that America had when they started the program was not to prove that
we could do the job, but to prove that we couldn’t. That included not only
people at the level where I was assigned, but those who were
trained to be flyers. That’s where the rub came that they didn’t want to see
Black men flying airplanes. They did everything they
could to make them fail rather than encourage
them to succeed. Stephen: Inspiration
to overcome obstacles and day-to-day challenges came from unexpected places. Corporal Wilbert
Gore was given advice in high school that he has carried with him
his entire life. Wilbert: Teacher, Mr.
[Carvanis] he said “You being who you are,” he didn’t use the word said “but you got to … ” Some people say don’t bite off no more than you can chew. He said, “But you, you
got to bite off more “than you chew and
you got to chew it.” So I didn’t forget that. Stephen: Gore also
says that his service as a flight engineer
in California and Ohio that he lives by the idea that you treat people how
you want to be treated. Wilbert: I never met
nobody I didn’t like. I had to like people because somebody had to like me. That’s the way I looked
at it at that time. I mean I think that’s a
pretty good thing to go on. Stephen: His attitude may
have been instrumental in getting his first
chance to fly in a plane. While Gore was
unable to be a pilot without a college
degree in the military he was able to make
good acquaintances with a sergeant
named Shackleford. Gore boldly asked
if he could take Sergeant Shackleford’s
parachute and go on a flight. He had never been
close to a plane until he arrived in California to train as a flight engineer. Wilbert: He took
[unintelligible] [unintelligible] right
over the Pacific Ocean. My ears stopped up
and I couldn’t see the propeller turning. I thought the thing was falling. I never forgot that. I covered my eyes the first time I’d been on an airplane. It was nice, it was a
real nice [unintelligible] because I’d look
around and couldn’t see the prop turning because
it was turning so fast, you know, couldn’t see it and over that water
down there, uh-uh, so that was the first time I’d ever been on an airplane. I’d work on them,
but I couldn’t- I didn’t fly on them. Stephen: In 1943 the
99th Fighter Squadron left for North
Africa to fly under Colonel Benjamin
O. Davis’ command. Once the Airmen were
participating in World War II their role became clear
when they were assigned to protect bombers on
long flight missions. The United States was
losing 25 bombers a day which were carrying as
many as [unintelligible] Previously, the bombers
[unintelligible] were engaging into combat
with German fighters and leaving the bombers
vulnerable to attacks. Their presence helped
discourage attacks. The fatalities were at a minimum once they took on
their assignment. The Tusgakee Airmen
had the discipline to stay with their bombers unless they were forced to take on fighter aircraft. The airmen decided
to give themselves the nickname “Red Tails.” They painted the rudder
on their fighter planes with bright red paint so that they would
be easily recognized as protection for the bombers and they wanted to be seen
in the sky by everyone. Sergeant Harry Quinton
said that no one was immune to attacks
from the Germans. Harry: I always said
that the Germans didn’t care what color you were. They didn’t have black
and white bullets. They would shoot at everybody without discrimination. Stephen: During World War II German prisoners
of war were kept on military bases in
the United States while waiting for the
conclusion of the war. It was not uncommon to
see the German POW’s walking about freely on base, able to come and
go as they please. It seemed to many
that the German POW’s had more freedoms than Blacks that lived in the United States. Sergeant Harry Quinton didn’t let many things bother him, but one day seeing a German POW lounging freely at
the Post Exchange really irritated him. Harry: When I was
in [unintelligible] Augusta, Georgia they had one day a
week where the Black soldiers could go to
the Post Exchange. I went that one day and I saw the German prisoners of
war just lounging around in the Post Exchange. I found out they could go
every day if they liked. I just couldn’t- At first I was angry. At first I was really surprised. I couldn’t believe that
the German prisoners of war were given that much freedom. Then I was angry because they were getting more
privileges than I was getting. Of course, I never
went back to that Post Exchange again. That has sort of stayed with me. I’ve never forgotten that. I just didn’t
dwell on it because I learned that you can’t- If you stay angry than
you can’t focus on your own purpose in life. Stephen: Though
Corporal Wilbert Gore felt his military
experience overall was a positive one he notes that the separation was
still polarized. Wilbert: I was in Long
Beach, California. That’s where I
went to school at. The people there was pretty
good in the military, but [unintelligible] you get on a bus, you could
work all day with a man. In the evenings
you go to barrack. You went to one barrack,
he went to another. You couldn’t stay
together, stuff like that. Stephen: Chief Master
Sergeant Grant Williams says that being recognized
today for his service so many years ago is flattering. He says that the
attitudes of Americans have changed and
are still changing. Grant: It is quite
different in the attitude of Americans now. We get just as much or as many good things from White people as
we do from Blacks. They seem to recognize
what happened. It’s more like an apology. They talk about it. They say it’s just too
bad that it happened, had to happen like that, but they’re proud and
glad that we survived. We did what we were
supposed to do. We did something that they
thought we couldn’t do. Now we’re getting the accolades. Stephen: Accolades that
include standing ovations or receiving honorary
doctorate degrees. Recognition during the
2011 Virginia Arts Festival International Tattoo. And even a congressional
gold medal presented by president George
W. Bush in 2007. They have received
numerous recognitions for combat fighting as well. Over 1,000
African-American aviators were trained for World War II between 1941 and 1949. Approximately 19,000
service members or civilians participated in the
Tusgakee Experience. Today an estimated
300 are still living. 32 Tusgakee Airmen
were prisoners of war and 66 Airmen made
the ultimate sacrifice and gave their lives in combat. The Tusgakee Airmen have
many national chapters of organizational support
to spread the word about the plight and challenges they faced in the war effort. Locally, the surviving
Tusgakee Airmen continue to tour and
educate our area schools, churches and local organizations via speaking engagements. Each of their stories are unique and give an inside
perspective to the beginnings of
desegregation in the military. The Tusgakee Airmen
overcame many obstacles and created a path for all who want to serve their country and live as everyone else does. Many of the Airmen say
that it is imperative to educate today’s
youth and remind them of how far the United
States has come since the days of segregation
and discrimination. Grant: Well, it’s sort
of like I tell the young people and that is that America is a good place and it requires the
help of everybody that occupy space to do the best that they can do at
whatever they’re doing, and if they do their
best then they will be contributing to
the well-being of those who come after them because they have
laid a good path and if they follow the
way that these men did they will make the
path much easier. Harry: Well I think
it’s important that the young people
know their history. If you don’t know your history you don’t know who you are. A lot of people- A lot of people today some people become successful and they think that they have- They alone are responsible
for their own success, but they don’t
realize that they’re standing on the
shoulders of people who have sacrificed
before they came. I mean people have died. Armelia: I think
they should walk away with the idea that
I can be anything that I want to be if I pursue it because some young
people today think oh well, I don’t want
to work that hard, but you have to work at whatever you’re supposed to learn. Education is the key. I think that that’s
what I would like for them to walk away with that here were some
men that were willing to try do the best
of their ability and to endure for a cause and they loved their country. Stephen: As part of
their mission to not only honor the Tusgakee
Airmen for their service the Tidewater Chapter
of the Tuskegee Airmen also educate youth
through flying programs and other methods. The story of the Airmen
is missing from many U.S. history books in
high schools and colleges. The major goal of
the Tidewater Chapter is to educate and inform
people of all races, ages and gender about
the Tusgakee Airmen. Retired Lieutenant
Colonel T.J. Spann is the president of
the Tidewater Chapter. He says that it is
imperative for the chapter to be involved in the community. Lt. Col. Spann: The fact
that the Tusgakee Airmen, the Experiment, their
accomplishments over the years of the experiment
were not captured or are not taught
in today’s books, American history or
government books. The fact that that’s
not occurring yet what has more or less
prompted us to do as an organization is
to try to do our best to make sure we stay
in the community and do a number of
things to bring rise to the fact that
their accomplishments is now part of the
American history. The fact that we go to schools be they elementary
or pre-K all the way to middle school, high
school and college, and businesses, we talk
about the Experiment. We talk about what
they overcame, the challenges that
they encountered. Stephen: Creating
community awareness is key to making sure that
the service that the Airmen gave for their
country is never forgotten. Lieutenant Colonel
Spann also hopes that being involved in schools inspires younger students to seriously consider
becoming a pilot. Lt. Col. Spann: Even
to this day, you know, the percentages are low, but we don’t have
all the biases to the degree that they
were in the ’40’s. We don’t have those
biases to overcome like we used to. Now we just need
to train them up in science, technology,
engineering and math and make sure they’re
sharp and ready to go. We actually have a youth program that we try to
show up those edges and expose the kids is part of our
community outreach. We have kids that we try to fly on a regular
basis to qualify for Experimental Aircraft
Association certification, EAA. We have a certified
pilot as well as a retired air force
helicopter pilot and a lot of parents
who are very interested in exposing their kids to STEM and making sure that
we bring them up in a way that they’re ready. That community is
getting very old and they need more pilots, so this young group
that we’re talking to they have been told,
they have heard that it’s getting
to the point where pilots in America are
reaching the critical state. Stephen: Lieutenant
Colonel Spann says that the Tusgakee Airmen
have paved the way for himself and others. If the experiment had
not occurred when it did African-Americans
might have been set back further from progress. Lt. Col Spann: Had the
experiment failed and this is the glass is half empty,
you know, mindset. If they had failed I
would not have been able to come in the air force. My family would
not have been able to enjoy the lifestyle
that we enjoy today because I seriously
would not have been able to aspire to be an
officer in the military. If I wanted to fly I would
not have been able to fly. Stephen: It is critical
to strengthen students in technical careers
as the Tusgakee Airmen look for young people
to carry their legacy. A legacy that they
hope will continue to be noticed by all people. The Airmen have said
it is not the accolades that they are now receiving
that are important. It’s about continuing
to educate and involve the young people
here at Hampton Roads and all across the nation. It was the Experiment
and Experience that the Tusgakee
Airmen don’t want people to take for granted. The Airmen and their
families are quietly living their lives
in Hampton Roads participating in educating
communities about all of their
experiences hoping that their message will resonate
and inspire others. Thank you for joining us. If you would like to
become a member of the Tidewater Chapter of
the Tuskegee Airmen their doors are open
to all for membership. Visit their chapter website
for more information. (instrumental music)

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