A TALE OF TWO COMMANDERS.

Author:Haulman, Daniel L.
Position:Noel Parrish and Robert Selway
 
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The Tuskegee Airmen included the first black pilots in American military service, but also others who served with them, in their units, or at their bases, between 1941 and 1949. Some of those personnel, including commanders of some of the Tuskegee Airmen units and bases, were white. Two of the most important of those Colonel Noel Parrish, commander of most important black flying school in the American military during most of World War II, and Colonel Robert Selway, who once commanded the 332nd Fighter Group and later the 477th Bombardment Group, the only two black flying organizations in the American military services during the war.

Colonel Noel Parrish was the commander of Tuskegee Army Air Field and the flying school there, where basic and advanced flying training for future black fighter and bomber pilots took place. Much larger than Moton Field, where the primary flight training took place using biplanes on grass, Tuskegee Army Air Field covered 1,681 acres. It boasted four large paved runways and three large double hangars. Black cadets who graduated from advanced flying training became Army Air Forces pilots, ready to move on to transition flight training or combat overseas.

Most Tuskegee Airmen remember Colonel Parrish, despite his white skin and southern roots, as a friend rather than an enemy, who was fair and genuinely interested in their success. Colonel Parrish favored the racial integration of the Air Force just after World War II, and wrote an Air University thesis to promote that idea. The Tuskegee Airmen Incorporated, which included a large number of black Tuskegee Airmen veterans, later instituted a Noel Parrish award to honor a member of the organization for his or her outstanding accomplishments. Parrish's reputation for fairness was established in part as a result of his actions during a racial integration crisis at Tuskegee Army Air Field in August 1944.

Colonel Robert Selway might have also been remembered as a friend of the Tuskegee Airmen, if he had not been responsible for resisting the integration of the training bases where he commanded, first the 332nd Fighter Group, before it deployed overseas to take part in combat as the first black fighter group, and later the 477th Bombardment Group, the only black bomber group, which never deployed overseas or took part in combat during World War II. If Selway had handled the integration issue at the bases he commanded the way Parrish did, Selway might also have been remembered by the black pilots and crews with admiration and respect. After all, he had commanded the only two black flying groups in World War II, and helped train them for combat. This paper explores the difference in the way Parrish and Selway responded to the integration crises at their bases, which left one a hero and the other a villain.

Before August 1944, Tuskegee Army Air Field was largely an all-black base, except for the white leadership there, white instructor pilots, who remained the majority there during the war, and some white enlisted support staff. Unlike the black personnel, who lived on base, white personnel lived elsewhere, such as in the white part of the town of Tuskegee, or at nearby Auburn. Largely because of the absence of white residents on base, many of the facilities at Tuskegee Army Air Field remained racially segregated during most of World War II. This included the post exchange restaurant, which some of the white personnel never used. On either side of the restaurant kitchen, in the middle of the building, was a dining room. The larger dining room on the east of the facility was where the black personnel ate. A smaller dining room, on the west side of the kitchen, was reserved for the white personnel. The segregation policy at the base was consistent with the segregation policy of the surrounding community in central Alabama, where racial segregation was the norm, and where it had been the norm for generations. Many of those who used the restaurant considered segregation there as much a matter of tradition as of policy.

There were certain blacks at Tuskegee, however, who were not satisfied with the status quo. Many of them had contact with other blacks who served at Selfridge Field, near Detroit, Michigan, where segregated base facilities had been resisted unsuccessfully. Many of the black cadets at Tuskegee, some of them conscious of demands for integration in the black press newspapers such as the Pittsburgh Courier or the Chicago Defender, opposed...

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