The Flight of the Bumblebee

World War II’s black pilots had two wars to fight.

Tuskegee cadets gather at a formal assembly. The first graduating class is seated in the front row. (NASM)
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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.

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