The Flight of the Bumblebee
World War II's black pilots had two war to fight.
- By Louis R. Purnell
- Air & Space magazine, November 1989
In October 1925 the Army War College prepared a report for the U.S. Army chief of staff. Titled “The Use of Negro Manpower in War,” it concluded that blacks were fair laborers but inferior technicians and fighters. It also stated that the cranial cavity of the Negro was much smaller than the white’s and that the Negro’s brain weighed 35 ounces, versus 45 ounces for the white’s. Other studies concluded that blacks lacked patriotism, were difficult to discipline, told lies, and ran off in times of danger.
It was upon this basis that the faculty and students of the Army War College and, in later years, officials at the Pentagon decided that no blacks should ever become pilots in the Army Air Corps.
That always reminds me of an old theory that holds that because of its wingspan-to-weight ratio, the bumblebee shouldn’t be able to fly. But the bee, unaware of this, flies anyhow. The same was true of us.
During World War II, I was a member of the 99th Fighter Squadron—the first squadron of black pilots. In the struggle for racial equality during the war, we did as much as—if not more than—any other group I’ve ever known. We fought two wars: one with the enemy and the other back home in the U.S.A.—Hitler and Jim Crow. Progress was difficult in both cases, but our victories were sweet.
I had wanted to fly since I was a child. My chief inspiration was a six-foot-two, 200-pound native of Trinidad who branded himself “the Black Eagle of Harlem.” Hubert Fauntleroy Julian was an elegant rogue with a haughty air. He impressed thousands with his black derby, monocle, wing collar, Prince Albert cutaway coat, striped trousers, and spats. As a six- or seven-year-old, I had no idea that Julian would go on to achieve all kinds of notoriety as the clown prince of black aviation.
One Sunday this dashing figure came to our church in Wilmington, Delaware, to deliver a speech about aviation and collect funds toward the purchase of an airplane for a solo nonstop flight from New York City to Rome, Italy. After a plate was passed for Julian, he invited us to an airshow to watch him make a parachute jump. He was to play a saxophone while descending.
At the airfield, a chauffeured La Salle convertible passed before the grandstand carrying Julian dressed in a flying suit. The car veered off and disappeared over a hill at the far end of the field. A few minutes later an airplane took off. At high altitude a tiny figure jumped out, the chute opened, and the jumper landed—no saxophone in sight. As the rest of the crowd turned its attention to airplane displays in the hangar, I happened to catch a glimpse of a truck rolling up behind the building with a billowing parachute in the back. I ran up, eager to get a close look at the star of the show, only to discover that the jumper in the truck was not Julian. Somewhere a quick switch had been made. A few minutes later Julian reappeared in the La Salle, an open parachute trailing behind him, to soak up the accolades of the small crowd.
Julian’s shenanigans were numerous. There was at least one parachute jump he actually did make: over New York City without a license. He landed on the skylight of a police station. At various times Julian posed as a government advisor, fundraiser, barnstormer, bodyguard, lobbyist, stunt pilot, rum runner, foreign correspondent, air marshal, lecturer, mediator, mercenary, arms dealer, movie producer, inventor, double agent, and diplomat.
In retrospect, I reluctantly admit I was on of the thousands he had duped. Nonetheless, as a black pilot, he was an inspiring role model for a black child. I was determined to fly.
It was becoming obvious as I grew older, however, that my race would be a major obstacle. It was my father who told me: “In order to appear equal, you’ve got to be twice as good.” It shouldn’t be that way, but unfortunately, I’ve found this to be true.
During the autumn of 1939, when I was a student at Lincoln University in Chester County, Pennsylvania, the Civilian Pilot Training Program established flight schools at several colleges and universities throughout the country. Six Lincoln students signed up immediately, and all six of us earned our wings. In the summer of 1941, I headed for the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, where a Civilian Pilot Training Program offered advanced training to those who had successfully completed the primary course. I finished the course in September, but my color prevented me from going any further: blacks were not accepted as aviation cadets.
By the time I reached this obstacle, I was feeling desperate. But I wasn’t the only one. In January 1941, Yancey Williams, a student at Howard University in Washington, D.C., appealed to the NAACP to file suit against the Air Corps to admit him to one of its training centers. In May, unaware of Yancey’s legal action, I also asked the NAACP for help. But before Yancey’s suit came to trial, the Corps relented under mounting social pressure and began accepting black pilots for training.
Two weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor, I left Lincoln University. I underwent my physical examination and in January reported to Tuskegee Army Air Field as an aviation cadet.
The washout rate there was exceptionally high compared with the percentage of failures at Maxwell Field in Montgomery, where the white pilots were trained. It appeared to us at Tuskegee that those in power were trying to limit the number of black graduates. Still, those of us who managed to graduate against the odds had the feeling that we had what it took.
The first full-fledged Army Air Corps pilots to graduate from Tuskegee did so on March 7, 1942. There were five—one officer and four cadets. The officer, Benjamin O. Davis Jr., was a West Point graduate who had ranked 35th of the 276 in his class. I earned my wings a few months later and joined 26 other pilots to form the 99th Fighter Squadron under Davis’ command.
We were undoubtedly the most highly trained squadron in the U.S.: the Air Corps brass couldn’t decide what to do with us so we flew and flew for nearly a whole year simply to maintain our proficiency. It looked as though the black squadron was in danger of becoming a white elephant, so reluctant was the brass to send us into battle.
Finally, on April 15, 1943, we left for North Africa, and by June we had settled down to the business of war and begun flying missions in our P-40s. Although we were resented by some of the white fliers, we found that a strong feeling of camaraderie usually prevailed among fighter pilots regardless of their race. I learned that the day I experienced my first close call.
The squadron was returning from a dogfight near the Italian island of Pantelleria, and we were still out over the Mediterranean when my engine began to act up and stream black smoke. Aware that a smoking engine could attract attention, low on fuel, and anxious to reach land, the squadron made a decision. It poured on the coal and left me dangling. The minutes that followed were some of the longest of my life.
I saw four planes in the distance approaching from my left. I flicked the gun switch to “on,” although the odds were against me, and prepared to go down fighting. I was one happy soul when I recognized that the four planes were not Hitler’s boys but the white squadron based near us. They stayed with me until I was over land.
On July 2, a group of Luftwaffe fighters came up to attack the bombers we were escorting. Our squadron broke formation and counter-attacked. A few minutes later Lieutenant Charles B. Hall of Brazil, Indiana, shot down a Focke-Wulf 190, becoming the first black Air Corps pilot to down an enemy aircraft.
That afternoon we celebrated, and “C.B.” was awarded the closely guarded squadron prize, which had been held in a safe since May for just this occasion. Eyes and mouths watered as C.B. took the chilled bottle of Coca-Cola and guzzled it down to the last drop.
Since the taking of the island of Pantelleria, which was the first battle in history in which air power alone completely destroyed all enemy resistance, the 99th had been taking on an increasing role of ground attack: dive-bombing and strafing. Although we thought of it as dirty work, we had become dive-bombing experts, and I considered dive-bombing and strafing my specialties.
July 14 found the 99th well established at Biscari airfield, which had just been captured by the ground forces. We continued to attack enemy strongholds and patrol the area, as well as perform armed reconnaissance. Yet we were criticized by the high Air Corps officials for not scoring more aerial victories. They began to question our courage. We wondered how we were supposed to win aerial battles when we had been ordered to perform ground attack.
Our job was to work on the infantry front lines. As the bomb line moved north, so did we. By the time we moved to Cefalù in northern Sicily, I had completed my tour of duty—50 missions.
I left Palermo, Sicily, on a B-24 bomber. On the way back to the States I struck up an acquaintance with a white fighter pilot from Lumberton, North Carolina, who had also completed his tour of duty. At each stop on the trip, he and I would head out to see what the nearest town had to offer in the way of entertainment. He had a good sense of humor, and we got along well.
We finally landed at Eglin Field, Florida, in a drenching rain at about 10 p.m. We jumped down from the airplane and I was about to offer my hand in congratulations when he turned away from me. I was hurt, but not terribly surprised, I suppose; considering that I was black, he was white and from the South, and we were back home, I accepted his behavior as normal.
A steady stream of staff cars began approaching, taking two or three men each off in the direction of the barracks or BOQs—Bachelor Officers Quarters. I saw my friend pause before entering the car waiting for him and turn to look in my direction. The headlights illuminated his face and his eyes looked wet. His face bore an expression I didn’t quite know how to interpret.
When a Jeep pulled up for me, I loaded it with my duffel bags and jumped in. But the driver did not follow the cars toward the buildings; he headed toward the gate, off the field, and into Tallahassee, where he stopped in front of a boarding house. My long-held hopes for a hot shower, a good dinner, and a visit to the officers’ club were shattered to bits. A hell of a reception for one who had just returned from fighting for his country!
The next morning the driver picked me up and took me back to the dispersal point on the field for the flight to Fort Dix. In the crowd I spotted my Lumberton friend. He said he could have told me what was about to happen the previous night but got so choked up he couldn’t get it out. He said he didn’t understand why I couldn’t stay on the base last night and reasoned that since both of us had risked our lives defending our country, the least the authorities could do was let me stay in the BOQ. After what I’d assumed about him, his explanation surprised me and made me vow not to prejudge.
From Fort Dix I went on to New York City, where I made a beeline for the Theresa—the best, the most widely known, and, to my knowledge, the only decent hotel where blacks were allowed to register during those times. The next morning I received a call from the front desk informing me that I had a visitor. In the elevator, I tried to guess who it might be. I never could have succeeded.
The elevator doors opened and there stood Hubert Fauntleroy Julian, looking much as he had when I was an impressionable seven-year-old. He went into his act immediately. Strolling up and down the lobby with one eye on a small audience, he said in a loud voice, “Is this any way to treat a returning hero? He should be out on the town. Give him the keys to the city.” He rummaged through his pockets. “Here—here are the keys to my car. Return the car whenever you wish, tomorrow or whenever you’re finished. It’s right outside, around the corner.”
I felt like two cents, being put on display like this, and could have hidden in the pile of the carpet. But I thanked him and set out to identify the car. I found it quickly enough: a big black Cadillac with a ticket on the windshield parked beside the fire hydrant. I removed the parking ticket, got in, turned the ignition—and saw that the gas gauge registered empty. The old fox’s plot included me, my gasoline ration card—which he didn’t know I lacked—and a full tank. I drove the car around the block, parked it in the space where I had found it, replaced the ticket, and returned to the hotel to give Julian the keys. He was still holding forth in the lobby, and he berated me in the presence of the people there, telling me that I didn’t know how to accept things graciously. Then, after he lost his audience, he invited me to come to his house for breakfast the next morning.
The Black Eagle appeared at his door dressed in a satin smoking jacket and wearing the ever-present monocle. But I could have cried when I entered his home. There was no furniture in the living room, and nothing but a big round oak table in the dining room. The kitchen held only a table and chair.
I couldn’t smell any food cooking. (Had he expected me to bring it?) I backed out of the invitation politely, explaining that I had other appointments. I really pitied Julian. He was living in another world, still playing the part of a king in a cold, empty house.
That was the last time I saw Julian in person. However, he continued to make himself conspicuous. Years later he appeared on the Dave Garroway and David Frost TV shows. In 1977 the Washington Post published an article listing the names of several distinguished foreigners—including one U.S. citizen—caught shoplifting in London’s major department stores. “Last summer’s bag included the famous ‘Col.’ Herbert [sic] Fauntleroy Julian,” the article read. “The Black Eagle, as he was known for his alleged flying exploits half a century ago, tried to soar out of Selfridge’s with [£1,500] worth of electronics under his arm. Since the ‘colonel’ admits to being 78, his exploit drew reluctant admiration even from [the] security chief….”
What was that I’d said about a role model? Well, we all make mistakes.
Following my leave—and happy to leave some parts of it behind me—I reported back to Tuskegee Army Air Field in October 1943, where my new assignment was to instruct a group of five aviation cadets. On his last dual instruction, one cadet froze at the controls while I was teaching him to recover from spins in an AT-6. Deciding that combat might be a little safer, I requested permission to join the 332nd Fighter Group. Formed of four black squadrons, including the original 99th, the 332nd was headed for combat under Colonel Davis’ leadership.
After a month of sailing aboard a Liberty Ship in early 1944 we arrived at Taranto, Italy. We occupied bases at Salerno and Naples and eventually set up a base in Ramitelli, on the east coast. The airplanes we flew—P-40s, P-39s, and P-47s—were hand-me-downs, but our linemen did an excellent job of keeping them airworthy. The best planes were yet to come.
I can’t find enough adjectives to describe my feelings about the P-51. Good response to controls, stable, smooth, powerful, quiet engine, good cockpit visibility, speed, rate of climb, reliability—it was the best fighter aircraft ever built by the United States. The Mustang was a real sweetheart. Had it been a woman, I would not have hesitated to marry it after the first time I flew it.
The 332nd was making progress; our victories were on the rise. By the winter of 1944 we were escorting B-24s and B-17s as they bombed oil refineries, marshaling yards, and munitions factories in Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia. Our highest score for one day was 13 victories. At last we were changing public opinion about our abilities as fighter pilots. Our group never lost a bomber to enemy fighters.
One day around Christmas of 1944, weather forced the bombers we were escorting to land at our base. During the two days the bomber crews stayed with us, one of the “duties as assigned” I was performing was censoring the enlisted men’s mail. I came across one letter I must have read 50 times. It read in part, “Dearest,…The most sentimental time of the year is approaching. It makes my heart bleed to know that I’ll not be with you at Christmas. May God speed the end of this war…[I]t’s bad enough I’m not on my own base. I’m stranded at a nigger base, eating nigger food and sleeping in a nigger bed.” The return address indicated the letter was from a Sergeant Schwartz.
The next day, as the crews began to assemble for takeoff, I located Schwartz when he was away from the rest of his crew. “Sergeant Schwartz,” I said, “after all, it wasn’t so bad sleeping in nigger beds and eating nigger food, especially when we protect you in flight. I’ll see you up there.” I turned and walked away without bothering to see the expression on his face.
Despite such episodes I still considered myself lucky: after flying dozens of missions, I remained physically unscathed. My most serious injury, in fact, was a rather inglorious one: I was hit by a Jeep while sleeping in my tent—the result of the squadron cook’s attempt to teach himself to drive.
There were close calls, though. One occurred while I was escorting bombers on a secret mission. I was at 18,000 feet when a feeling came over me. This was the best day of my life. Everything was beautiful. I could hear music coming from nowhere. I had an urge to roll back the canopy, climb out on the cowling, and direct all 63 airplanes as though they were an orchestra.
Then, about five minutes later, it seemed as though someone had lowered a gray mosquito net over my eyes. I felt that I was going to be sick; I grew careless and didn’t give a damn about maintaining my position in the formation. I desperately wanted to sleep. The plane veered off in a descending right turn. My vision began clearing as I approached lower altitude, but the sick feeling remained.
I learned later that I was suffering from hypoxia, or insufficient oxygen. Either my oxygen supply had sprung a leak or the regulator had malfunctioned. At the moment, though, my only thought was to try to land safely.
The nearest landmark was the island of Vis, off the coast of Yugoslavia, which was known to have been occupied by the Germans. After I landed, Yugoslavian soldiers from the anti-communist Chetnik faction found me and took me to a shepherds’ hut. Although I had been told that American pilots would be safe on Vis, I had my doubts.
The next morning a crowd of about 50 old men, women, and children had gathered around the hut. Word had traveled fast. I spotted a woman in the crowd holding a baby, and when I reached toward it the baby took hold of one of my fingers. The woman offered me her child as though she were handing it to some strange creature. I held the baby for a few seconds, then gave it back to the woman. As a soft murmur spread through the crowd, I knew I was safe.
One other episode is still particularly vivid to me. We were on a strafing mission over Yugoslavia when we spotted a long convoy of German trucks. Swooping down to treetop level and below, we blasted them right and left. Some returned fire with their machine guns.
After returning to the base, I checked the aircraft—a brand new P-51 on its maiden combat mission—for bullet holes. Hanging over the edge of the airscoop beneath the plane was a strange object—a black-brownish glob, wet in some spots. I poke at it with a stick and it fell to the ground. A fleshy glob. Then it dawned on me: this was part of a man.
My first thought was Better he than I. And then I began to think seriously about what had happened. At their point of convergence, bullets from a P-51’s six 50-caliber guns have a disintegrating rather than penetrating effect. Debris flies in all directions. Eighty minutes ago that man was alive, healthy, and whole. His parents had raised him just as mine had raised me. He had nothing against me personally, and I had nothing against him, but since our countries were at war, killing was legal. When called to arms, one must defend his country.
But it all seemed so futile: nations trying to force their forms of government and ways of living on other nations, all the while knowing that wars never really settle anything. The result is men without fathers and fathers without sons.
I was also well aware that had it not been for the war, I would never have been able to fly. The war dramatically improved the situation for black aviators. Afterwards, blacks became commercial pilots. In Korea and Vietnam the Air Force was integrated. Benjamin Davis and other blacks became generals. Today we have black astronauts.
I think they were all accepted a little more readily because of what the pilots of the 99th squadron had gone through. It was just another rung on the ladder we were trying to climb to disprove that old theory of black inferiority. Per aspera ad astra, as the saying goes—to the stars through difficulties.