The following commentary seems appropriate – I am writing it on Memorial Day and I had other things on my mind than what my gold portfolio was worth on Friday, much more. We all owe our thanks to all of the servicemen who gave so much so we can live in freedom.
My personal interest has always been WW2. My major in college was 20th Century European History and my favorite courses were on WW2. I own an extensive collection of original oils by Robert Taylor, Nicholas Trudgeon and Robert Shaw depicting air battles from the last Great War.
Recently, I purchased a Blue Ray DVD of the movie Red Tails. It is a movie you should see…overlooked, but excellent! I was very interested in seeing it, in part because I own John Shaw’s original painting (see below) that depicts the “Tuskegee Airmen” in action.
It is a large painting and occupies most of an entire wall just outside of my office, at home.
The story of the Red Tails is fascinating and I think you will enjoy it. It wasn’t long ago when Negros (that’s what they were called in those days, and other less appropriate terms) were deemed unfit – to dumb and cowardly – to serve in the US Air Force.
They proved their detractors wrong! They saved countless American B-17 and B-24 bombers crewmen’s lives, including George McGovern. Read on…
The squadrons comprising the well-known “Tuskegee Airmen” gained fame during World War II in the skies over Europe, North Africa and the Mediterranean. These all-black units of patriotic Americans proved themselves to be some of the finest pilots of the war, despite obstacles such as prejudice and segregation. (Artist John D. Shaw gives tribute to this unique group in his painting “Red-Tail Angels”, so titled because of the nickname given the Tuskegee Airmen by Allied heavy bomber crews who often requested them as escorts.)
The painting comes with the signatures and photos of many of the original Tuskegee pilots, including their famous commanding officer, General Benjamin O. Davis, Jr.
This is the defining artistic tribute to these outstanding individuals who fought axis aggression in the air and homegrown racism on the ground.
During many harrowing bomber escort missions, the Tuskegee pilots flew right through enemy flak over the targets alongside the bombers. Such was their skill and tenacity that none of the American bombers they escorted were lost to fighter attack. This painting represents an actual incident over Italy in which a straggling B-24 bomber with two engines out is saved from German fighters by the “Red Tailed Angels”.
The 99th Fighter Squadron of the 332nd Fighter Group is better known as the Tuskegee Airmen. In combat they flew several different aircraft. Initially they flew the Curtiss P-40 Warhawk. This was a prewar design and almost obsolete. They were briefly equipped with Bell P-39 Airacobras in March of 1944. This was an even worse design and used by very few front line fighter units of the US in the war. The Russians got a lot of P-39s through Lend-Lease and liked it, because it had a heavy automatic cannon firing through the propeller hub, and was good for tank busting, but it was not suitable for air-to-air combat. The 99th was equipped with Republic P-47 Thunderbolts in June and July 1944. This was an excellent aircraft and a very good dogfighter, especially at higher altitudes. In July 1944 the 99th was equipped with North American P-51 Mustangs, probably the best all-around fighter aircraft of the war, and flew these for the rest of the war. This is the aircraft featured in the movie and in the painting of Red-Tail Angle, above.
Son of the first black General in the United States armed forces, Lieutenant Benjamin Davis, Jr. graduated from West Point Academy, 35th in a class of 236, after enduring four years of unrelenting abuse from other students that included “silencing” – a form of ostracization usually used to force a dishonorable cadet to resign. He was the first black to graduate from the Academy in this century.
Upon graduation in 1936, he applied for service in, and was rejected by, the Army Air Corps. Lt. Davis and his new bride Agatha then went to an infantry assignment at Fort Benning, Georgia and for the next few years served at several obscure posts before being assigned to teach military science in the ROTC program at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Following a brief reassignment at Ft. Riley, Kansas and a promotion, Captain Davis returned to Tuskegee, one of thirteen black cadets in the newly-established Civilian Pilot Training Program and the nucleus of the first black Fighter Squadron – the 99th – that the Army was then forming. Of the original thirteen, Davis and four others survived the intense pressure of preliminary training and went on to complete advanced training, earning their wings and transitioning into P-40 fighters in the fall of 1941.
After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into the war in December of that year, the experimental program to train a combat-ready unit of black aviators gained momentum and an additional squadron, the 100th, was formed in the spring of 1942; Davis was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and later that year given command of the 99th. He established a reputation as a stern disciplinarian who would “ground” when necessary, hotshot pilots who broke rules. Difficult training and living conditions at the Tuskegee Army Airfield were compounded for Davis and his black airmen by a rigidly-enforced segregation policy that eased somewhat with the appointment of a new base commander.
In May, 1943, Davis took the 99th Squadron to North Africa, where they trained near Fez, Morocco and at Fardijouna, near Tunis. The squadron’s first combat missions, as a part of the 33rd Fighter Group, were strafing and bomber-escort missions against enemy forces on the island of Pantelleria, south of Italy. During this time the squadron scored its first aerial victories and suffered its first combat casualties, in the process earning praise from the Theater and Area commanders.
In January, 1944, Lt. Colonel Davis, now commander of the 332nd Fighter Group, which had incorporated the 99th, took his unit to Taranto, Italy. Initially, his pilots were assigned coastal patrol duty, flying obsolete P-39 fighters. Things changed after Davis was decorated with the Legion of Merit and promoted to full Colonel. The unit was reassigned, transitioned into state-of-the-art P-47 Thunderbolt fighters, and began flying critical bomber-escort missions. The P-47s’ tails were painted red as an identification device and they became known as the “Red-Tails”. After seeing the way the pilots would fly through enemy flak and stay close to the bombers even if it meant missing the opportunity to score “kills” of enemy fighters, grateful bomber crews began requesting escorts by the Red Tails. The 332nd pilots were, in fact, the only Army Air Force fighter group that never lost a bomber they escorted to enemy fighter attack.
On September 10, 1944, Col. Davis was decorated with the Distinguished Flying Cross, along with three other Tuskegee Airmen; a month later he received the Legion Of Merit. He said later, “Our pilots had become experts in bomber escort and they knew it.” Davis’s Red-Tails continued to fly and fight over Italy, Europe and the Mediterranean. They transitioned to P-51 Mustang fighters, a slightly faster aircraft better suited to long-range operations and a machine in which many Tuskegee pilots distinguished themselves. In spite of their success in the air, however, the pilots and ground crew had to endure many racial slights and harassment by white officers and enlisted men, some of it even from bomber crewmen they protected in the air.
During March, 1945, Col. Davis led his group on a 1,600-mile round trip escort mission to Berlin, one of the longest of the war; there they encountered German Me-262 jet fighters for the first time and downed several. They were awarded the Distinguished Unit Citation for this mission. On another mission, to Austria, they encountered 17 Me-262s and FW-190s, shooting down 13 without loss to themselves. The Red-Tails also conducted highly successful strafing and bombing missions, including one notable long-range strafing operation led by Col. Davis, in which they destroyed 35 locomotives, 52 rail vehicles, 4 barges and four motor vehicles. They flew their last combat mission on April 30, 1945, a week before the war ended in Europe.
In June, 1945, Col. Davis returned to the United States and was given command of the 477th Composite Group. He also assumed command of Godman Field, Ohio, becoming the first black commander of a U.S. Army Air Base. An editorial in a Columbus newspaper jeered the arriving black airmen but the black community celebrated the arrival of the war heroes. The 332nd fighter group was subsequently reactivated and downsized. Many of Davis’s pilots stayed in the military and went on to illustrious careers of their own, including “Chappie” James, who served in Korea and Vietnam and became a four-star general.
In 1948, segregation in the military ended by executive order. Col. Davis attended the Air War College, served in the Pentagon and commanded a fighter wing in Korea. In 1954, he was promoted to Brigadier General and made Vice Commander of the 13th Air Force in the Philippines. Subsequent tours took him to Taiwan, Germany, the Pentagon and back to Korea. After a promotion to Lieutenant General, he assumed command of the 13th Air Force at Clark Air Base in the Philippines during the Vietnam War. In July, 1968, he became Deputy Commander of the U.S. Strike Command. He retired in 1970. No other black airman had so long or illustrious a career, nor overcame more adversity to prove himself, than did General Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. His story is truly inspiring.
In November, 1997, General Davis and more than a dozen of his former pilots gathered to proudly sign a unique limited-edition print by noted aviation artist John Shaw titled “Red-Tail Angels”. The print depicts the rescue of a crippled B-24 bomber by the Tuskegee Airmen and is based on an actual incident that took place over Italy. It is a tribute to these brave Americans who fought for freedom and the man who led them to victory. Although hard to come by, occasionally one of these prints comes up for sale on the secondary market. You can check with Aviation Art Hangar if you are interested. They may be able to find a copy for you.