If you think political correctness is a recent phenomenon in America, then the longtime promulgation and perpetuation of distortions and falsehoods concerning the Tuskegee Airmen should disabuse you of such a notion.
The very creation of the group was an attempt by President Franklin Roosevelt to showcase blacks in the war effort, which was dominated by white men, and exclusively so in the air. While Butch O’Hare, Colin Kelly, Jimmy Doolittle, and Joe Foss were making headlines in 1942, blacks were nowhere to be seen. People today forget that, until the multiple presidencies of FDR, blacks were not solidly wedded to the Democratic Party. If nothing else, FDR was a shrewd political strategist, and cultivating the growing urban black vote with a highly publicized black air wing was a p.r. coup. Unfortunately, it was also the beginning of misinformation and distortions about the Tuskegee flyers that have been repeated so often and for so long that the nonsense now passes for fact.
The most glaring falsehood says the fighter pilots of the Tuskegee Airmen, while escorting American bombers, never lost a bomber to enemy aircraft. This claim first appeared in a black-oriented publication, Liberty Magazine, in its March 10, 1945, issue. The claim was repeated in a black newspaper, the Chicago Defender, on March 24, 1945. In reality, the black unit alluded to, the 332nd Fighter Group, had already lost at least 24 bombers to enemy aircraft and, on March 24, 1945, would lose three more. Facts were not allowed to get in the way, though, and the no-losses fabrication, repeated like a mantra, soon gained canonical status, despite pilots and crewmen from the B-24s and B-17s that were shot down objecting.
I was teaching a course on World War II in 1995 when The Tuskegee Airmen, an HBO made-for-TV movie, aired. “They Were Our Country’s Best Defense . . . And Its Greatest Glory,” said the film’s tagline. Several of my students watched the movie and, a day later in class, asked me about the black pilots never losing a bomber they were protecting to enemy aircraft. Since it was in the movie, my students thought it must be true. To this day not one of the many reviews of the movie at IMDB.com—the go-to site for films—mention that the claim is false, instead emphasizing that the Tuskegee Airmen never lost a bomber! Moreover, the movie even had American bomber pilots requesting that the black flyers escort them and feeling relieved when learning that the “Red Tails”—the vertical stabilizer of the 332nd’s P-51s was painted red for easy identification—would be on the mission.
Far from being our country’s “best defense” or “greatest glory,” the 332nd rated dead last of the four P-51 fighter escort groups of the Fifteenth Air Force. A postwar analysis of the effectiveness of the all-white 31st, 52nd, and 325th fighter groups, and the all-black 332nd, found the white pilots had a much higher kill ratio, shooting down two to three enemy planes for every one they lost themselves, while the black pilots lost more of their own aircraft to the enemy than they shot down. Although the record of the 332nd has been portrayed in glowing and heroic terms, the actual combat data say otherwise. Some 445 Tuskegee Airmen flew in combat, and only 72 got a kill. Not one became an ace. Their total aerial victories were 112. According to the official Air Force publication “USAF Credits for the Destruction of Enemy Aircraft, World War II,” total victories for the 332nd specifically were 94. The same source credits the 31st Fighter Group with 278 aerial victories, the 52nd with 224.5, and the 325th with 252.
Moreover, the 332nd did not begin combat operations until June 1944 and flew in the Mediterranean theater of the war. The best German pilots were on other fronts or had already been killed. Then, too, the P-51D that the 332nd flew was a superior airplane to the Me-109 or FW-190, yet the German pilots shot down many more of the 332nd’s P-51s than Messerschmitts or Fock Wulfs they lost themselves. Three black pilots, Lee Archer, Joseph Elsberry, and Edward Toppins, had four aerial victories. Most had none or one.
The top American pilot in Europe, Francis Gabreski, had 28 aerial victories, including shooting down three German planes on one flight. He was followed closely by Robert Johnson and George Preddy, both with 27. Like Gabreski, Johnson shot down three German planes on one flight, but it was Preddy who set the record for American pilots in Europe, shooting down six Me-109s in five minutes of furious dogfighting. A dozen other American pilots had 20 aerial victories or more, including Bud Mahurin, who was the first American to become a double ace in Europe.
Any movies about any of these pilots who lit up the skies of Europe? Not hardly, but a second movie about the Tuskegee Airmen, Red Tails, which perpetuates many of the myths, was released in January.