3 Women 'Red Tails' Left Out

A first lady, a civil rights icon and a pilot aided the Tuskegee Airmen, says Henry Louis Gates Jr.

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The Tuskegee Airmen also owed a debt to Willa Beatrice Brown, one of two women in the all-black Challenger Air Pilots Association, founded in 1935. Brown was one of about 100 licensed black pilots in the entire country. She also became the first African-American woman to receive a commission as a lieutenant in the U.S. Civil Air Patrol.

An expert in business administration and public relations and a dedicated aviator, Brown played a critical role in promoting the image of black aviators to help fight racial prejudice and expand opportunities for all blacks. She became chair of the association's education committee and appeared in the offices of the Chicago Defender, the famed black paper of the era, to convince the paper to cover the association's air shows.

Enoch Waters, one of the paper's editors, visited an air show and became so impressed with the talent he saw that the Defender became a sponsor of the association. The paper, because of Brown's appeal, also began covering all aspects of black aviation, and soon other black papers followed suit, especially the influential Pittsburgh Courier.

Because several American black aviators had gone to fight the Italian fascists in Ethiopia in 1935, national interest in black pilots had increased. Brown exploited the growing fame of black pilots and helped organize Chicago's National Airmen's Association of America in 1937, which chartered branches across the country (except in the Deep South). Without Brown's work, African-American interest in aviation could have languished.

Additionally, she not only successfully lobbied for federal funds to support the private Coffey School of Aviation in Chicago but also wrote directly to Eleanor Roosevelt in December 1941. Brown's role in the integration of America's aviation forces, like that of Bethune, was a considerable one as well.

In 1941 Eleanor Roosevelt, at Bethune's urging, convinced the Rosenwald Fund (which had a long history of supporting various kinds of projects aimed at ameliorating American race relations, and on whose board she served) to help expand the pilot-training program at Tuskegee. And then in March of that year, Roosevelt not only visited the Tuskegee Institute's Moton Airfield but, incredibly, also asked the chief flight instructor, Charles A. "Chief" Anderson, to take her on a flight, against the adamant objections of the Secret Service.

This is quite likely the first time a black man flew a plane with a white woman as his passenger. Roosevelt spent over an hour in the skies above Tuskegee. She returned to Washington and lobbied her husband to integrate America's aviation forces. According to the FDR Presidential Library and Museum, she declared that all the statements she had heard that blacks couldn't fly planes were bunkum.

The rest is history: The 99th Pursuit Squadron (later called the 99th Fighter Squadron) was formed in July 1941. The first class of black aviator cadets began to train on Nov. 8, 1941, with the first pilots graduating on March 7, 1942. In all, 992 African-American pilots trained at Tuskegee Army Air Field, and 450 of its black pilots flew in combat during the war, serving in the four black fighter squadrons and four bomber groups.  

By June 1944, black pilots had flown 500 missions in the 99th Fighter Squadron, first in North Africa and later in Sicily and the rest of Italy. The 332nd Fighter Group flew 179 heavy bomber-escort missions, as Red Tails depicts so effectively, shielding heavy bombers such as the B-24 Liberator. They shot down 111 Axis aircraft.

In their longest escort mission, the 332nd Fighter group managed to shoot down not one, but three of the new ME-262 jet fighters that the Germans threw against the propeller-driven fighter planes -- again, in a battle that Lucas so vividly re-creates. Sixty-six of the Tuskegee Airmen died during the war, and others earned many Purple Hearts, Silver Stars and Distinguished Flying Crosses. President Harry S. Truman even gave the Tuskegee Airmen a Distinguished Unit Citation for "outstanding performance and extraordinary heroism." 

Tuskegee Airmen Movies, Books and More

From Red Tails to the toy aisle, images of the iconic World War II soldiers are everywhere.