Black Angels: Not Intelligent Enough to Fly?
by Jimmie Hollis
As a student of history, I find myself particularly drawn to military history. Over the years, I have read numerous books and watched untold television documentaries about American military forces at war.
Most of the documentaries I've seen only occasionally show the blacks who served in our armed forces. When they do, it's then usually only as cooks and truck drivers. This can be explained by white officers who, at that time, believed that such jobs were the only ones blacks could perform.
But, one day, as World War II was raging, something strange happened. White soldiers and black cooks looked up and saw a sight most thought they would never see: fast and powerful Mustang fighter aircraft roaring overhead that were piloted by black aviators. Negroes (the term used at the time) were flying airplanes! Many whites shrugged it off as ridiculous, but blacks felt an overwhelming sense of pride.
Some white American soldiers openly hoped the Germans would shoot down these uppity "flying apes" to put blacks "back in their place." These sentiments rolled off the backs of these black aviators because they knew what they could do. They knew that when they strapped themselves into their powerful Mustangs and roared off into the skies over Europe, a lot of Germans were going to have a very bad day.
The North American P-51 Mustang, affectionately called the "Cadillac of the Sky," was a formidable fighter flown by U.S. Army Air Forces. It was the plane used by the black aviators of the 332nd Fighter Group.
The agility and power of the Mustang helped these highly-skilled black aviators earn the respect of the enemy and the white bomber crews they escorted. These were the famous Tuskegee Airmen - the same men many white commanders said were not intelligent enough to fly. Well, for a bunch of Negroes allegedly incapable of flying airplanes, they did a lot of damage to enemy fighters, warehouses, ships, supply lines and railroads. And many white bomber pilots and crews credit their lives and many successful missions to those same underestimated Negroes. In fact, white bomber pilots began to affectionately refer to them as the Black Angels.
It was springtime of 1945, when the Germans felt the final push by Allied forces, the 332nd Fighter Group was right in the mix. Men like "Hot Rock" Pruitt, who was regarded as the best pilot in the outfit, and wingman Buddy Archer fought the German enemy in the sky with the same determined resolve with which they fought another enemy - racism - on the ground. On March 31, 1945, the 332nd dropped close to 30 enemy planes from the sky. These men, once considered too ignorant to fly, were responsible for the last four enemy kills in the Mediterranean theater.
A white reporter once wrote about the Black Angels: "Fighting on foreign soil for the freedom of others when their freedoms are denied here at home takes a lot of courage, honor and dedication. I tip my hat to these brave Negro men; they are a credit to their race."
Today, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has endorsed a Congressional Gold Medal for these pilots. Even at a time when he is busy with our troops abroad, he says this honor is something of "utmost importance" to him.
As an American of African ancestry and a United States Air Force retiree, I often think of those Black Angels streaking across the sky during World War II. Racism and hatred tested, boiled, chewed and spit out these black pilots, but they came away better, tougher, smarter and more determined and professional than ever.
The black community now knows about black aviator Lieutenant C.D. "Lucky" Lester, who won the Distinguished Flying Cross in his Mustang in July of 1944. And if I could ask Lester what he thinks about the fact that the Black Angels made it possible for today's black aviators to grab the sky, I believe he would just tip back his flight cap, lean against the wing of his Mustang, smile and say, "It was worth the struggle. Yes sir, it was worth the fight."
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Jimmie L. Hollis is a freelance writer and National Advisory Council member of the black leadership network Project 21. Comments may be sent to Project21@nationalcenter.org.
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