Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Red Tails, Black Wings by John B. Holway

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

I have been wanting to read this book at least since the movie came out. However, that is usually the worst time to find a book at the library. I picked this book as part of my Black History Month reading. 

I’m enough of a World War II aviation buff to be at least passingly familiar with the Tuskegee Airmen (aka, the Red Tails), but I had never read their entire story.

The story of African Americans and the US military is one of frustration. After a few good decades in the aftermath of the Civil War, the military became segregated - and indeed hostile to any participation by blacks. This became particularly pronounced during WWI, thanks in no small part to Woodrow Wilson, who was both Southern and a bigot. (Not my favorite president, by a long shot, shall we say.) Even those who were allowed to enroll got shunted to “service” jobs. Cooks and janitors, personal servants to the brass. Certainly nothing resembling leadership. The quotes from this book from the time are painful to read for their blanket assumption of the inferiority of non-whites when it came to character, discipline - and especially leadership.

In the face of all this, a special group of African American pilots were trained. The Tuskegee Airmen had to face a great deal of hostility to succeed. Indeed, the old adage held true: they had to be twice as good to get half as much respect.

I’ll just summarize the basics. They flew out of North Africa, and then Italy, flying primarily as fighter escorts for bomber groups. They chose to paint their tails red, so that they could never be mistaken for another group. Although they never had an exceptional “kill” record, they had one which was even better. The whole purpose of a fighter escort isn’t to pursue enemy fighters, after all. It is to protect the bombers. The loss of a B-17 would mean up to 10 men - and potentially the mission.

The Red Tails ended the war with an amazing record:

Not ONE bomber lost to an enemy fighter.

(Bombers were lost to mechanical issues - and even more to anti-aircraft fire. But these were outside of the Red Tails’ control.)

This ability - and willingness - to stay in protection rather than seeking individual glory, made the Red Tails a highly coveted escort, and helped them break down the racial barriers within the armed forces.

The book is largely told from the perspectives of the pilots themselves. There are extensive and extended quotes, tied together with enough narrative to make a coherent story. Clearly, the author spent a lot of time interviewing the surviving members. It really makes the story come alive to hear of the good, the bad, and the ugly in their experiences.

And really, the story cannot be told without the issue of race being central. From the very beginning, there were those who abused their power to try to harass the Red Tails (and others in the military). Some Southern law enforcement officials would intentionally target black soldiers - and some, like Sheriff Pat Evans, would eventually become infamous for their brutal tactics later during the civil rights protests. One recurring theme is the refusal to allow African American officers to use the officers’ club and other facilities, despite the executive order from President Roosevelt that they were to be unsegregated.

On the other side, there were a number of white officers who volunteered to train the Red Tails, in the process sacrificing their own promotion opportunities. There are several men who won the undying admiration and respect of the black pilots for their fairness and advocacy in the face of personal cost.

It is hard to pick just a few incidents and people, but the following were good enough to stand out to me.

First, it was interesting just how badly Hollywood comes out in this book. There is no doubt that Hollywood has a longstanding history of discrimination against all minorities - and women - that continues today in a truly embarrassing manner. Still, it is worth noting that the “cowboy” era was quite literally, whitewashed by Hollywood. The very word itself, “cowboy” derives from the epithet for “negro,” and fully one fifth of cowboys were in fact black. However, there is nary a one to be seen in the average Western. Likewise, African Americans fought in the army throughout the latter half of the 19th Century, to be forced out during the Wilson years. Again, nary a mention.

Theodore Roosevelt is one of my favorite presidents for a number of reasons - some of which make me unpopular with the modern Right Wing - and one (forgotten) story is a reason why. TR gets credit for the battle of San Juan Hill - but his Rough Riders weren’t the real story. That belonged to the 10th Cavalry - the “Buffalo Soldiers.” The African Americans who were never given credit - their commander was rejected for honors.

At least TR was good enough to say at the time, “I could wish for none better. They can drink out of our canteens.” This was shocking at the time - and would remain so throughout the Jim Crow era. This was also just one of many cases in which blacks would be denied honors they richly deserved.

The book tells of Charles Bussey, one of the Red Tails, who later served in Korea. He at that time was in a ground-bound position, but nevertheless risked personal danger in a heroic effort. He was recommended for the Medal of Honor. However, it was downgraded, as was admitted to Bussey by the officer who did it.

I belong to a group who believe that it’s our responsibility to keep Negroes in their place, and the most effective way is to deny them leadership. Then there’s never any threat to anyone. If the medal was posthumous, no problem. Or if you were an inarticulate enlisted man, I would have no objection. But, being who you are, you’d be out encouraging Negroes to do the things you do.

Ironically, “Negroes” were considered to be “safe” in another context. When Alexander Jefferson was shot down and taken prisoner, he was chosen by some Southerners to be their roommate because at least they knew he wasn’t a German mole.

Bussey, by the way, was born in my adopted hometown of Bakersfield, CA. Back in the 1920s, it was a pretty bigoted place, by all accounts. Heck, we had active KKK chapters well into the 1980s. Not something to be proud of.

On the positive side, one person who came off extremely well was Eleanor Roosevelt. I will admit, I am not nearly as familiar with her as I should be. She was and is unfairly maligned within conservative circles, for her association with her New Deal husband, and her feminism. (Needless to say, I now find her feminism admirable.) However, it was interesting to see how involved she was in civil rights decades before it was remotely acceptable for a white woman to do so.

One incident recounted in the book is when she insisted on going on a flight with Tuskegee Airman “Chief” Anderson, much to the horror of the Secret Servicemen assigned to her. From that time on, she was the go-to person for African Americans seeking admission to the armed forces - and she came through. She wrote personal letters back, and usually apologized for the segregation still plaguing the military. One could even be so bold as to say that she was probably the single most important factor in the eventual desegregation order from her husband. I must admit I have a renewed appreciation for her after reading this book.

Like with so many worthwhile books, the power of this one is in the personal details. Sure, these guys were legitimate war heroes, and fully deserving of the honors they received - and many they did not receive due to the prejudice of the times. But it isn’t just that. What truly struck me as amazing was that these men suffered prejudice, harassment, criminal charges and imprisonment if they dared assert their right to use shared facilities, and more. Their country tried to prevent them from serving, for goodness sake!

And yet.

They faithfully served, and were clear headed enough to decide that Nazism was worse than the injustice they experienced at the hands of their countrymen. They sought the good of those who hated them, and gave exceptional service to protect those who wouldn’t even eat with them. That is truly amazing, and shows a strength of character that is inspiring.

Fun notes on the aircraft:

My favorite WWII fighter is the Spitfire. Still one of the prettiest aircraft ever built. Second choice would be the F4U Corsair, for the elegant gull wings. On the other hand, there was something special about seeing a Hawker Sea Fury in person at the Shafter fly-in several years ago. That huge radial engine had a distinctive sound.

The Red Tails flew four different aircraft. The first was the P-40, already obsolete by the time they got them. In fact, some of their aircraft were from the Flying Tigers (the American Volunteer Group who fought in China against Japan before the US entered the war) and were barely airworthy by that point. Later, they flew the P-47 Thunderbolt, a heavy but durable aircraft, and the unusual P-39 Aircobra, with the engine behind the cockpit. (The P-39, oddly, was credited with more kills than any other US fighter, but is considered more of a curiosity today.) Finally, they got the legendary P-51 Mustang, arguably the greatest fighter of the era. 

P-40 with the Flying Tiger graphics. I still love this plane. 
P-47 Thunderbolt
P-39 Aircobra
 P-51 Mustang - Red Tail livery
Note on the Flying Tigers:

I wrote a report on the Flying Tigers when I was in high school after reading a book (the name eludes me) written by one of their pilots. I found them fascinating enough to build a model P-40 and give a report to our homeschool group. Later, my parents would meet the late “Tex” Hill on a Southwest Airlines flight. Yes I was jealous.

Even later than that, however, I got to talk with my wife’s late grandfather, who was an Army doctor serving in China during the same period. He treated some of the Flying Tigers during their stay, and could remember Claire Chennault reasonably well. (Pappy Boynton apparently wasn’t quite as memorable, alas.) Dr. Haut still had his commendation from Chaing Kai-shek, in the original Chinese, which caused a great stir at their favorite local Chinese restaurant. Good stuff.

This is beyond the scope of this post, but I think it is foolish to approach cases like Ferguson without having an idea of the history behind the current problems. This book touches on some bad experiences, where law enforcement flagrantly defied the law, military authority, and basic human decency. It is thus unsurprising to find that this persists today, and that modern law enforcement - which is rarely held accountable - continues the same pattern.

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