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3753 04/04/2007
Tuskegee Airmen: Backstory, Symbolism and Real Meaning
Horace Coleman
4 April 07

Tuskegee Airmen: Backstory, Symbolism and Real Meaning

Horace Coleman

World War II was the last time the U.S. fought a war whose loss would have had an immediate and serious effect on the country, The stakes were so high there was a draft, women were used to do military non combat jobs and worked in factories and ship yards to fill labor gaps and make more men available for military service.

Conditions were so serious that war bonds were sold and gasoline, tires, meat, and nylon were rationed. Gasoline was rationed because it and oil were needed for the military. Rubber was needed for military vehicles. Nylon was needed more for parachutes than stockings.

By those standards the War on Terror must not be much of a crisis. After all, the Commander in Chiefs words to the public were “Go shopping!”

Racism, and its twin, sexism didn’t disappear during WWII, though. Female pilots formed a unit called WASP—Women Airforce Service Pilots—not White, Anglo Saxon, Protestants although most of the women were) after the WAFS (Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron) and the Women’s Flying Training Detachment (WFTD) merged.

The WASP were invaluable during World War II. According to the Wikipedia entry about them:

Almost every type of aircraft ever flown by the USAAF during WW II, including the very early American jet aircraft were also flown by women . . . . Between September, 1942 and December, 1944, the WASP delivered 12,650 aircraft of 78 different types to their destination and had flown over sixty million cumulative miles. Over fifty percent of the ferrying of combat aircraft within the United States during WW II was carried out by WASP . . . .

Among other tasks, they also gave check rides to male pilots, towed targets for gunnery practice and chipped in to send home the bodies of WASP (38 died serving the country). Wikipedia says that “The WASP were considered civil service employees and did not receive military benefits unlike their male counterparts.” Not only did the WASP not get benefits but they were kicked to the curbs of history. “All records of the WASP were classified and sealed for 35 years, so their contributions to the war effort were little known and inaccessible to historians for many years.” Not until 1977 did they get official recognition from the U.S. government.

But to address those Tuskegee Airmen. In March 2007 they were given the Congressional Gold Medal. During the presentation ceremony President Bush said "These men in our presence felt a special sense of urgency. They were fighting two wars. One was in Europe and the other took place in the hearts and minds of our citizens."

Double “V.” said the Pittsburgh Courier in 1942, “Democracy: Victory at Home, Victory Abroad." The idea came from James G. Thompson who wrote the Courier, a leader among African American newspapers at the time, “Should I Sacrifice To Live ‘Half American?’

President Bush said "Even the Nazis asked why African American men would fight for a country that treated them so unfairly." Perhaps because, as John D. Loudermilk’s lyrics for Tobacco Road go “. . . it’s home. The only life I’ve ever known.” The Airmen were quickly reminded of America’s habits when they disembarked from the ships bringing them home. White troops were sent in one direction, blacks in another. They had to fight American prejudice before they could fight the Nazis. And deal with, endure and overcome it afterwards.

Now many Airmen are dead, the survivors are old and the general public has forgotten their deeds--if it ever knew about them. To mix some old blues lines, did it for you yesterday and here you come tomorrow with a handful of gimme and a mouth full of sorta obliged.

Assessment: The U.S. can’t get closer to truth and reality than 50 to 60 years away. White women and black men fought separate wars against the prejudice and discrimination of sexism and racism to defend a country that tried to write them out of history.

After all, it was understood that if you were female or black you couldn’t possibly have the brains, ability or courage to do a complex technological task or any thing truly essential. You had to be depressed, repressed and oppressed so you wouldn’t upset a flawed social order. Aside from their contributions to the general war, the WASP and the Tuskegee Airmen wanted to make an equal effort and have equal rights.

You have to wonder, though, if the nation will grow up before it ossifies. Or, if it’s already essentially frozen in place.

However, the examples of the Tuskegee Airman and the WASP show that if you have the skill and the will, walls can be breached and crumbled. So, keep on keepin’ on. Whether those trying to act oblivious acknowledge you or not. Efforts create and deserve changes.

Progress isn’t always onward and upward. Some times it’s stasis or backsliding. Often the same struggles reoccur. I love to see long shots win. Often they’re only long shots because some one deliberately underestimated them. A Luta Continua (the struggle continues).