Tag Archives: aviation

Red tails, black wings: The Tuskegee Airmen

Tuskegee Airmen

Tuskegee Airmen in Hondo, Texas, with pilot Jeff Hefner, 2000. Public domain image courtesy of Tech. Seg. Lance Cheung, USAF, Wikimedia Commons.

It’s wonderful what you can do when somebody else believes in you. Sometimes you have to struggle to win over hearts and minds; other times you don’t.

John B. Holway wrote a great book about exactly this type of situation. It’s called Red Tails, Black Wings: The Men of America’s Black Air Force.

The book concerns the Tuskegee Airmen, a group of African-American men who began training as pilots in Tuskegee, Alabama in the early 1940s. Jim Crow laws were still in effect and although African-American men were admitted to military service, they were placed in menial labor positions.

But that would change, and Tuskegee was the beginning. The men of Tuskegee not only performed well as pilots in spite of others’ low expectations, they excelled. The Red Tails (parts of their planes were painted red for easier identification) escorted bombers above Europe and Africa and made sure that the crews of every bomber got safely home by fighting off enemy aircraft.

The book is in different parts — an overview of African-Americans in the military since the Revolutionary War, a history of African-American pilots, how Tuskegee came into being and the personal accounts of the men who went there. There are some hair-raising combat/prison camp stories and some tales of how pilots made emergency landings in hostile territory. One pilot recounts how he had to make a crash landing in Yugoslavia and was treated decently by locals, some of whom had never seen an African-American pilot in their lives.

But it is the individual portraits in the book that got me. Some of the men are smiling, some are more pensive in expression. One looks mildly astonished. But each one has an expression of calm competence: “We’ve got this handled. Don’t you worry about a thing.”

I wish there were more people like the Tuskegee Airmen in the world. Oh, what we could accomplish.


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