As we thought about how to recognize and honor the accomplishments of African Americans during Black History month, we decided to focus on one of our most successful World War II units, the Tuskegee Airmen.
Despite significant obstacles, Tuskegee's pilots, maintainers and other operations support personnel enjoyed significant combat success in Europe, leaving an indelible mark on U.S. military history. The National Defense Industrial Association continues to honor their service with its strategic focus on workforce and innovation.
All military organizations depend on three foundational components to deliver military effectiveness: personnel, training and equipment. They thrive when they recruit from the broadest pool of talent available; provide recruits with competent and practical instruction; and equip highly-trained personnel with reliable, innovative gear. Fighting for a "double victory" for freedom abroad and at home, the Tuskegee Airmen provide a case study example for this recipe because they enjoyed all three ingredients: immense talent, great training and cutting-edge equipment.
Despite a long and distinguished history of military valor, African Americans faced endemic prejudice in the armed services during the interwar years. An influential 1925 U.S. Army War College report baldly asserted African Americans were "inferior" to white men. While the report was "Unclassified" the Army handled it as though it was "Secret," possibly because the War College could not prove its specious claims the "...negro officer was a failure as a combat officer in [World War I]."
Given this assessment, it's no surprise the report recommended limiting African American participation in combat units, and when "experimenting" with such units, they should be segregated and led by white officers.
Overcoming this institutional bias in the late 1930s, African Americans won inclusion in an expanded civilian pilot training program. Responding both to war mobilization needs and lobbying from black civil rights groups, President Franklin Roosevelt announced the Army Air Corps would train black pilots. Recruits from all over the country traveled to Alabama, in the heart of the Jim Crow South, to train at the Tuskegee Institute as pilots, navigators, bombardiers, instructors, aircraft and engine mechanics, control tower operators and other maintenance and support staff. Nearly all college graduates or students, they matched talent and patriotism with a strong...