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Wednesday, February 15,2012

One squad, two victories

New book finds the Tuskegee Airmen fighting overseas and at home

by Dennis Rymarz and Kurt Anthony Krug

The death of President Franklin Roosevelt on April 12, 1945, eclipsed a lesser-known American tragedy that happened the same day. When 101 African American pilots, navigators and bombardiers refused to sign an order that would have thrown them into segregated housing, the U.S. Army Air Force arrested the celebrated Tuskegee Airmen and put them behind barbed wire inside Fort Knox.

At first, author Lawrence P. Scott, 60, of Lansing, became angry when he learned of the incident. As he learned more about the complex origins, multiple goals and ultimate fate of the first all African-American fighter squadron in the history of the U.S. military, his anger deepened into a desire to tell their story in depth.

The result is “Double V: The Civil Rights Struggle of the Tuskegee Airmen,” newly published by MSU Press.

“They put their lives on the line in a war effort that shaped the way the world is today,” Scott said, but the Airmen were “primarily ignored and suffered considerable discrimination while they were in the service,” and got more of the same when they came home.

The “Double V” of the title refers to the squadron’s daunting twofold mission. African-Americans volunteered to fight in the thousands during World War II, Scott writes, not only to help vanquish the nation’s enemies, but also to change national attitudes toward African Americans. Military service, Scott writes, became a “mode of protest” in service of a “double victory” — victory abroad, over Hitler and the Axis powers, and victory at home, over prejudice, segregation and unequal rights. No pressure there for a group consisting mainly of 19- and 20-year olds.

Scott wrote the book in 1994 with the late veteran Tuskegee Airman William M. Womack Sr., who retired from the Army with the rank of lieutenant colonel. They zeroed in on the 1945 mass arrest, not just as a key moment in the squadron’s history, but also a forerunner of the Shreveport and Montgomery bus boycotts of the 1950s and the lunch counter sit-ins and freedom rides of the 1960s. 

The officers incurred the wrath of their commanders when they tried to get into the Officers’ Club at Freeman Field in Seymour, Ind., to conduct sit-in demonstrations to protest discrimination.

“They were all arrested and put in the brig,” Scott said. It was no light matter. “During war time, if you violated the Articles of War and were court marshaled, you could conceivably be put to death. So they were facing death for disobeying a direct order during war time.”

The Tuskegee Airmen were ultimately released because “cooler heads prevailed,” according to Scott. However, the story was overlooked for many years, and few have reported the account with the level of detail that Scott and Womack have. According to Scott, there simply is not a lot of available information on the incident, and what exists is somewhat buried.

It was achievement enough to get into the squadron in the first place. “Despite the handicap of racial segregation and the denial of basic rights … these young men became mathematicians, scientists, and engineers competent in the operation, navigation and maintenance of the most sophisticated aircraft in the world,” the late Benjamin Hooks, a past president of the NAACP, says in the book’s forward.

But to Hooks, the exploits of the Tuskegee Airmen went beyond technical and military prowess. The Freeman Field protest, Hooks wrote, brought to light the “immoral, politically expensive, and counterproductive nature” of segregation in the Air Force. In 1949, five years before the Brown v. Board of Education decision ended segregation in public accommodations, the Air Force became the first branch of the U.S. military to desegregate.

One squadron, two victories — not a bad service record. No wonder Hooks was hooked on the saga of the Tuskegee Airmen. “It’s a great story because it depicts how a race of people who were disrespected and forced to live as second class citizens get beyond all of that to succeed in a very dangerous conflict situation,” he said. “They succeeded against all odds.”

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