They flew 1,578 missions in the European and Mediterranean theaters of
operations and 15,533 sorties.
They destroyed 111 enemy aircraft in aerial combat and another 150 on the
Ninety-five of their number were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
Fifteen percent of them were KIA and seven percent POW.
Yet for many in the military establishment, their blood wasn’t good enough
to be shed for God and country.
On Tuesday, a Tuskegee Airman, Dr. Quentin Smith of Gary—now 92—told his
story to the Chesterton-Porter Rotary Club.
“You would hear it said,” Smith recalled. “Black men can’t lead. Black men
can’t fight. Black men can’t fly complicated planes.”
This, despite the fact that black men served honorably in the Revolutionary
War, dislodged the French from New Orleans with Gen. Andrew Jackson, served
both as freed men and slaves with both the Union and the Confederacy, and
skirmished their way West against the Indians as the Buffalo Soldiers of the
9th and 10th Cavalry Regiments and 24th and 25th Infantry Regiments.
It was a curiosity of history, however, Smith said, which led to the black
man’s marginalization in the military on the eve of World War II. An officer
corps overwhelmingly born and bred in the South—the post-Reconstruction
South—wore its racism on its sleeves as proudly as it did the ribbons on its
breast. So the black men who did serve did so as stevedores, gravediggers,
Then the bombs fell on Pearl Harbor. Going into the election year of 1942,
his country at war in the Pacific and preparing to invade North Africa, FDR
cut a deal with Black America, Smith said: he would integrate the military
if 20 percent of black voters cast their ballots for him.
They did, he didn’t. Couldn’t.
So separate and altogether unequal units were established, among them what
became known as the Tuskegee Airmen, for the Tuskegee Army Air Field in
Alabama where they received their training. Thirteen men were in the first
cadet class. Five of them graduated after the nine month course, in March
1942. Eventually 992 graduated and of those 450 served overseas.
Smith, after hearing from his brother about the general unpleasantness of
crawling through mud with an M-1 Garand under machine gun fire, opted
instead to learn to fly at a private black school in Chicago. Almost washed
out, in fact, until he received tutelage from Willa Brown, the country’s
preeminent black aviatrix.
Smith got pretty good, real good in fact, and went to Tuskegee not as a
cadet but as a cadet instructor.
But Smith never made it overseas. He’s a big man, rangy, too large to fit in
the cockpit of the P-51 Mustang or any of the other fighter craft in service
in the ETO. So he learned to fly the B-25 Mitchell medium bomber, only took
a month to make the switch.
But it took five more months for the U.S. Army Air Force to train black men
to serve as navigators and bombardiers, Smith said. Because—of course—white
navigators and bombardiers couldn’t be expected to serve under a black
Finally, with a compete complement, Smith and his crew were shipped to
Godman Field at Fort Knox, Ky. But the field there was too small safely to
operate the B-25, so they were re-assigned to Freeman Field in Seymour, Ind.
And there bad things happened to the Tuskegee Airmen.
“As soon as we got there, we went to the Officers Club,” Smith said. “And
the officers on base said, ‘Hold it. You can’t go in.’ I said, ‘I’m sorry,
you know. You don’t know the Army regulations. Any officer can go in any
club in the United States or its possessions.’ He said, ‘Well, I place you
under arrested quarters,’ which means go back. So this 10 went back. Then 10
more came. Then 10 more came. Well, we had 546 black officers of all stripes
in this group.”
Things got way out of hand. A colonel assembles the black officers in a
hangar and they boo him off the stage. The colonel runs to the general and
he orders a court-martial board, where 1st Lt. Quentin Smith is duly
informed that failure to obey the direct order of a commanding officer is
punishable up to and including death. “I said, ‘I’m just 190 miles from
home. And here I am in this mess.’”
In the end 101 of the 546 black officers of the Tuskegee Airmen—Smith
included—refused to comply with their commanding officer’s direct order and
were placed in the stockade at Fort Knox. Next likely stop: 20 years at
It blew over, eventually, when Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP intervened.
“It got too big for the colonel. It got too big for the general. It went to
President Truman. President Truman said, ‘Turn them loose.’”
Smith left the U.S. Army Air Force with an honorable discharge. But it
wasn’t until 1995, he said, that his official military personnel record was
expunged of the derogatory reference to the Freeman Field incident.
Overseas, the Tuskegee Airmen had their own problems, Smith said. Call it a
reverse Catch-22. A pilot with five kills to his name is considered an ace.
But every time a Tuskegee Airman made it to four kills he was returned to
the States. One day a Tuskegee Airman with three kills had two in the same
What to do, what to do.
The Army Air Force solved this problem by crediting one-half of one of those
kills to the Airman’s wingman and promptly sending him home.
Of the 450 Tuskegee pilots who served in combat, 66 were killed in action.
One-hundred-and-twenty-five of them were honored by the French with the
Criox de guerre, comparable to the U.S. Congressional Medal of Honor; eight
received the Purple Heart, 14 the Bronze Star, and one the Silver Star; and
744 were presented with the Air Medal and Clusters.
The Tuskegee Airmen provided air cover on bombing missions and cut a savage
swath in ground attacks on Hitler’s Germany, destroying or otherwise
damaging 136 aircraft in aerial combat, 273 on the ground, 40 barges and
boats, 619 box cars, 23 factories, 126 locomotives, and nine radar