WASHINGTON — Segregation during World War II spilled over into U.S. military ranks, but an all-African-American fighter pilot crew formed within the Army Air Corps made a major impact in helping to break down racial barriers.
|President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama host Tuskegee Airmen at a showing of the movie “Red Wings” at the White House, Jan. 13, 2012. Cicero Satterfield is in the second row, far right. White House photo |
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Seventy years later, and as National African American History Month begins, film director George Lucas’ just-released movie, “Red Tails,” is sharing the journey of these storied aviators, the Tuskegee Airmen. President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama invited surviving Tuskegee Airmen to a Jan. 13 premiere screening of the movie at the White House, a week before its official opening. Cicero Satterfield, 92, was among the former Tuskegee Airmen who attended the event with his contemporaries, all now in their 80s and 90s.
Satterfield enjoyed the movie, saying it “portrayed what we did.” The message the film carries, however, was of paramount importance to him.
“ ‘Red Tails’ is important to educate the public about what the Tuskegee Airmen did during World War II as aviators who protected American bombers fighting the Germans,” he said. Satterfield added that he is struck by the impression the movie is making on people who were unaware of the significant role the Tuskegee Airmen played during World War II.
“No matter what,” he said, “the Tuskegee Airmen should be recognized for their accomplishments.” Satterfield noted that today’s young generation seems to be very interested in the history of the successful Tuskegee mission.
Satterfield joined the Army Air Corps — which evolved into today’s Air Force — at age 21 and was chosen as a charter member of the Tuskegee Airmen in 1941. He became an assistant aviation crew chief, and at the rank of corporal, he trained airmen.
It was July 19, 1941 when the Defense Department’s forerunner, the War Department, began training African-American military pilots and aircrews at Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute and nearby Tuskegee Army Airfield.
The first classes of Tuskegee Airmen were trained as fighter pilots for the 99th Fighter Squadron, and headed for combat duty in North Africa. Their mission was to escort bomber aircraft over strategic targets to help in reducing the heavy losses these crews were experiencing. Additional pilots were assigned to the 332nd Fighter Group, which also included the 100th, 301st and 302nd fighter squadrons.
By the war’s end, nearly 1,000 men graduated from pilot training at Tuskegee, and almost half of them went on to combat assignments overseas. Some of the airmen went on to reach the general officer ranks, including Daniel “Chappie” James, who became the first black U.S. four-star general in 1975.
During the course of the war, the Tuskegee Airmen flew more than 15,000 sorties and fought in the skies over North Africa, Sicily and Europe in P‑40 Tomahawks, then P‑39 Air Cobras, then P‑47 Thunderbolts, then finally, P‑51 aircraft.
As they amassed more than 200 combat missions, the Tuskegee Airmen distinguished themselves by never losing a single bomber to enemy forces — a record unmatched by any other fighter group.
The long list of military awards earned by the Tuskegee Airmen is a testament to their success. Collectively, they earned more than 744 Air Medals, 100 Distinguished Flying Crosses, 14 Bronze Star Medals, eight Purple Hearts, a Silver Star, a Legion of Merit and three Presidential Unit Citations.
As the Tuskegee Airmen distinguished themselves both individually and as a group, they helped to pave the way for President Harry S. Truman’s 1948 executive order integrating the armed forces.
In May 2006, President George W. Bush signed a bill into law awarding the Tuskegee Airmen the Congressional Gold Medal, Congress’ highest civilian award.
The road to that success wasn’t always smooth for the Tuskegee Airmen, who battled segregation and prejudice on the ground as they confronted enemy forces in the air.
“Some [people] thought we couldn’t do it, but we didn’t subject ourselves to that,” Satterfield said. “We accomplished what they said we couldn’t.”
(Donna Miles of American Forces Press Service contributed to this article.)
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)