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No. 516:
Tuskegee Airmen

Today, airplanes with red tails and Black pilots change America. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

I spent fall, 1953, in basic training. A young soldier from Georgia said to me, "Look at this! I'm using the same water fountain the colored soldiers use; and it doesn't bother me. I wonder what the fuss was all about?"

The small Virginia town outside the gate lagged far behind. After five years, the integrated Army was running smoothly. We had more pressing things to worry about than color -- like shiny boots and getting five hours sleep a night.

A group called the Tuskegee Airmen had done much to get us to that point. Black Americans have served in our armies since the Revolutionary War. But on the eve of WW-II we still segregated our soldiers. We closed doors to blacks. In particular, you had to be white if you wanted to fly.

Our myths reserve flight for heroes -- for Sinbad and Daedalus. Icarus died because he lacked a hero's sense of purpose. He stopped to play and flew too near the sun. Before Pearl Harbor, that's the kind of thing the Army still thought black fliers would do.

But the Nazis had made racism a major theme in the gathering war. So, under pressure from the NAACP, the Army opened a school for black fighter pilots in 1941. They put it at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Tuskegee was already training black civilians to fly. And it was off the beaten path. The Army expected failure, and they wanted to keep it out of sight.

But the program did not fail -- far from it. Fliers came out of it burnished to a superb luster by trainers with no intention of failing. Tuskegee fighter pilots arrived in North Africa in 1943.

First they escorted planes behind the lines. Then we flung them into the air war over Europe. 450 Tuskegee fliers saw combat. 66 were killed. 32 were shot down and captured. They accounted for over 400 enemy planes, 40 boats and ships, and untold damage on the ground. In one air battle, they shot down three of the nearly unbeatable new German jets -- the Germans' last secret weapon.

The Tuskegee pilots painted the tails of their fighters red. The bomber pilots they protected called them red-tailed angels. The Germans called them Schwarze Vogelmenschen -- Black Birdmen. We'd begun by calling them a Noble Experiment. But these superb pilots were no experiment. They were Daedalus the Hero, after all. And, three years later, we finally got the message. We finally desegregated the Army -- and changed America.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Francis, C.E., The Tuskegee Airmen. Boston: Brandon Publishing Company, 1988.

Harper, G., Tuskegee: Runway to Victory. Soldiers, Feb. 1984, pp. 4952.