As we honor Memorial Day, it is time to look back at some of the men and women who have served this country during times of war. One such group was known as the “Tuskegee Airmen” or “Red Tails” due to the color of the tail of their planes. Formally known as the 332nd Fighter Group and 447th Bombardment Group of the United States Army Air Corps, they were the first group of African-American pilots who were allowed to join the United State Air Force.
During World War II there was a growing need for pilots. As an experiment, the United States War Department began training Black pilots at the 66th Air Force Flying School at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. The historically all-Black college, now known as Tuskegee University, had already established a flight training school, so there was an initial base of instructors and equipment from which to build the program. Although it was meant to fail. It did not.
The military was only trying to back up a 1920 report that stated that Blacks were not smart enough or disciplined enough to fly a plane, but Charles Alfred “Chief” Anderson, who pioneered the program saw it as an opportunity to prove his trainee’s mettle. Moton Field, where the Black pilots flew, was harsh, and Anderson pushed his students hard. As many as half dropped out. But those who made it through were some of the best pilots in the war.
Although they trained and trained, it looked as if they were never going to see any action until First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt showed up. According to an article on Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s website Roosevelt reportedly said during her visit, “I’ve always heard colored people can’t fly, but I see them flying around here.” Against the objections of her security men, the open-minded, free-spirited first lady asked to fly with Anderson. While there were already plans to incorporate the “Tuskegee Airmen” into service, it was her visit that seemed to get things rolling.
It was MIT graduate George Leward Washington, the MIT article went on to say, who saw the program through. “He was the director of mechanical industries and the Tuskegee Institute Division of Aeronautics. He oversaw the construction, outfitting and expansion of Moton Field, and as general manager, he hired and supervised flight instructors, airplane maintenance personnel, and other support personnel, and ensured that cadets were properly housed and fed. While the Army looked at the training of African American pilots as an experiment, Washington didn’t see it that way.”
There was a total of 992 Tuskegee Airmen, with more than 14,000 counting their all-Black back-up crew of ground personnel, liaison and service pilots, mechanics and logistical personnel. Three of the “Red Tails” lived in Williamson County after the war: Robert Murdic, Thomas Gordon Patton, and Dr. Joseph C. White.
Murdic graduated from the Tuskegee program in 1944 and eventually saw combat in France and Italy near the end of World War II. He flew more than 20 missions, both providing escort to B-17 and bombing himself. “The Daily Post Athenian” states that he received a posthumous Congressional Gold Medal in 2013 for his service and bravery.
Patton was the son of John T. Patton, who founded Patton Brothers Funeral Home – the oldest African American funeral home in Middle Tennessee. His mother, Alice, was the descendant of four generations of persons enslaved by the McGavock family at Carnton Plantation, according to their website. He attended Fisk University, and then became a Tuskegee Airman during the war. After the war, he joined the family business. He passed away in 1972, but his wife, Louise Beal, who was a long-time educator in Williamson County, lived to be 100.
Lieutenant Joseph Clyde White was with the 301st Squadron, according to the Tennessee Archives. During his service, he spent time in North Africa, Italy, France and Germany. He was part of the successful group of Tuskegee Airmen who were able to lower the casualty rates of bomber crews by more than 40% compared to their white counterparts. After the war, he used the G. I. Bill to gain a bachelor’s degree in physics from Tennessee State University, and two master’s degrees. “White used his knowledge to become an instructor in flight, radar and electronics,” said the archives. “He also worked as a physicist and teacher, establishing an electronics program at Pearl High School in Nashville. After his retirement, White frequently appeared at speaking engagements to discuss his role in the Tuskegee Airmen and the experiences he had as a pilot during World War II.”
Tuskegee Airmen changed the way the military saw Black pilots. They earned 96 Distinguished Flying Crosses, and the 99th Fighter Squadron earned three Distinguished Unit Citations. The group produced the country’s first Black general of the United States Air Force, base commander, and wing commander. Also, the first Black four-star general in any of the armed services.