A Tradition of Sacrifice: African-American Service in World War II
By Tim Holbert
Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are people who want crops without ploughing the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning; they want the ocean without the roar of its many waters. The struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, or it may be both. But it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand; it never has and it never will.
In his book, Red Tails, Black Wings, author John Holway tells the story of the famed â€œRed Tails;â€ the Tuskegee Airmen. The 99th Fighter Squadron and the 332nd Fighter Group flew 1578 missions and over 15,000 sorties. 450 pilots flew into combat. Sixty-six of them never returned. Every single pilot was an African-American.
What is most impressive about the 332nd and 99th is their record in battle. In all of those missions flown by all of those pilots, zero friendly bombers were lost to enemy fighters. It is a record that few can match, though none should be surprised by it. The men trained at Tuskegee knew that they had to be the best. Anything less would be used as further proof by those who believed that black men could not and should not be pilots, and further condemn them to serve only as cooks and members of the ship or campâ€™s band. The drive to be known not as a novelty but as feared pilots caused these men to work harder and longer than anyone could ever imagine. In the end they would enjoy success beyond what anyone could ever imagineâ€¦except themselves.
The story of Spanky Roberts, one of the Red Tails whose story was recounted by John Holway, demonstrates the double-conflict that so many black soldiers and airmen had to face. Though the impeccable record of the Red Tails merited recognition, the 332nd was consistently under-decorated. However, during the war they did earn ninety-five Distinguished Flying Crosses, as well as a Presidential Unit Citation. Roberts would later recall,
I remember the day in Italy when I stood in parade formation alone in front of my squadron to get the Presidential Unit Citation surrounded by newspapermen and photographers. The general leaned forward to pin the medal on and in a low voice called me every unprintable name he could imagine: â€œBaboons canâ€™t flyâ€¦Baboons canâ€™t fight.â€ He said the gun photos on our planes had been faked. I stood and looked him in the eye and said absolutely nothing. For my money, I proved myself to be a better American than he was.