Red Tails’ Film Pays Tribute to Tuskegee Airmen

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)

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