Tuskegee Airmen Honored in Two New Films

By Linda Tarrant-Reid

Americans celebrated Veterans Day on 11/11/11 with patriotic parades, solemn wreath-laying ceremonies, tributes, exhibitions and documentaries filled with archival footage of wars and the brave men and women who fought for American causes around the globe.  Originally called Armistice Day and changed to Veterans Day by a bill signed into law by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1954, it is an occasion for the country to remember, reflect, thank and honor the contributions of our family members and friends who have risked their lives in service to our country.

President Barack Obama laying wreath on Veterans Day at Arlington National Cemetery, Washington, DC.

Today, the battlefront for American soldiers at war shifts from Afghanistan (considered the longest war in American history), to Iraq (U.S. is scheduled to withdraw troops at the end of 2011), to Yemen (where the U.S. is using a counterterrorism campaign against al-Qaeda), to Pakistan (where the counterinsurgency campaign yielded the assassination of Osama bin Laden in April) and to Somalia (where the U.S. is conducting special operations attacks against al-Qaeda operatives).

In President Barack Obama’s Veterans Day remarks at Arlington National Cemetery, he spoke of the contributions of the armed forces.

“In Iraq, they have battled a brutal insurgency, trained new securityforces and given the Iraqi people the opportunity to forge a better future.  In Afghanistan, they have pushed back the Taliban, decimated al Qaeda, and delivered the ultimate justice to Osama bin Laden.  In concert with our allies, they have helped end Qaddafi’s brutal dictatorship and returned Libya to its people.

…Because of their incredible efforts, we can stand here today and say with confidence -– the tide of war is receding.  In just a few weeks, the long war in Iraq will finally come to an end.  Our transition in Afghanistan is moving forward.  My fellow Americans, our troops are coming home.

For many military families, this holiday season will be a season of homecomings.  And over the next five years, more than 1 million Americans in uniform will transition back to civilian life, joining the nearly 3 million who have done so over the past decade and embraced a proud new role, the role of veteran.”

I recently attended a screening of a new documentary, Double Victory: The Tuskegee Airmen’s Story in Their Own Words, at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem. In Double Victory, surviving Tuskegee Airmen tell their stories of becoming the first African American fighter pilots during World War II who had to fight on two fronts – the war to end fascism in Europe and the war against racism at home in the U.S.  The audience was filled with Tuskegee Airmen and their families, politicians including the former Mayor of New York City, David Dinkins, and community members.  The documentary, slated to be shown on television soon, is part of the pre-marketing strategy to publicize the much anticipated feature film, Red Tails, also about the Tuskegee Airmen which will be in theaters in January 2012.

Class of Tuskegee Cadets learning about airplane engine at Tuskegee Airfield.

The documentary and the feature film are two of the latest projects from Lucasfilms, the studio that brought us the ultra successful Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises.  The Tuskegee project was in development and production for more than 20 years and rejected by the seven major Hollywood studios before George Lucas, the executive producer, decided to bankroll the action-driven WWII feature Red Tails, personally, to the tune of $93 million.

Red Tails stars Cuba Gooding, Jr., Terrence Howard, Bryan Cranston, Brandon T. Jackson and Nate Parker and chronicles the story of the Tuskegee Airmen focusing on a group of African America combat pilots during World War II.  The Tuskegee Airmen were a test case by the Army Air Corps, the precursor of the Air Force, “to train pilots, navigators, bombardiers, maintenance and support staff, instructors and all the personnel who kept the planes in the air,” according to the National Park Service’s (NPS) Web site.

Tuskegee Airmen at a pilot's briefing.

African Americans have fought in every war waged by America starting with the American Revolution, the Spanish-American War, the Civil War up to the Korean Conflict, the Vietnam War and our present combat missions.  The armed services were initially segregated but with pressure from civil rights activists, President Harry S. Truman signed Executive Order 9981 which began the process of desegregating the armed forces in 1948.

Labor activist A. Philip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, had set the stage for integration in the military and defense factories in 1941 when he met with President Franklin D. Roosevelt to end racial discrimination in the defense factories so that Blacks could get jobs.  Randolph threatened a March on Washington of 100,000 in 1941 to protest discrimination in employment. Roosevelt did not want the march to occur and when Randolph refused to stop the march, Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802 which desegregated the defense industries and opened employment to Black workers.  The order provided for “equality of treatment and opportunity in the armed forces without regard to race, color, religion or national origin.”

Poster recruiting for 1941 March on Washington in DC to protest discriminatory practices in the armed forces and the defense industry.

In 1941, Tuskegee Institute, the historically Black college in Alabama, was selected as the training site for African American cadets which would become the home of the Tuskegee Airmen.  The military built a segregated base, the Tuskegee Army Airfield, where Black cadets were trained as pilots.  Lieutenant Colonel Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., the first Black graduate of West Point Military Academy and the son of Brigadier General Benjamin O. Davis, Sr., the first Black general in the U.S. Army, became the commander of the 99th Fighter Squadron and later the commander of the 332nd Fighter Group of the Tuskegee Airmen.

During World War II, the Tuskegee Airmen, as noted on the NPS Web site, “completed 15,000 sorties in approximately 1,500 missions, destroyed over 260 enemy aircraft, sank one enemy destroyer, and demolished numerous enemy installations. Several aviators died in combat. The Tuskegee Airmen were awarded numerous high honors, including Distinguished Flying Crosses, Legions of Merit, Silver Stars, Purple Hearts, the Croix de Guerre, and the Red Star of Yugoslavia. A Distinguished Unit Citation was awarded to the 332nd Fighter Group for “outstanding performance and extraordinary heroism” in 1945.”

In 2007, the Tuskegee Airmen were awarded by President George Bush and the U.S. Congress the Congressional Gold Medal for their service.

President George W. Bush awards Tuskegee Airman Dr. Roscoe C. Brown Congressional Medal of Honor.

Our veterans and members of the military deserve to be celebrated not just on the one day set aside in November, but everyday for their contributions.  The veterans returning from Iraq, Afghanistan and other areas of conflict and their families face many obstacles and need our help in their readjustment back to life in the U.S.  There are many organizations that support returning vets and their families, a way to pay it forward would be to volunteer.  The White House has recently announced a national initiative, Joining Forces, to help service members and their families.  For information about this White House program and to find out what you can do to give back to our service members and their families visit: http://www.whitehouse.gov/joiningforces .

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