Part one: overview of the Tuskegee Airmen and the Red Tails movie
The Tuskegee Airmen were the first African-American aerial combat unit. Deployed in Europe during WWII, they painted the tails of their planes red and became known as the Red Tails. To the Americans, they were the Red Tail Angels. To the Germans, they were the Red Tail Devils. To all of us, they are heroes who sought a Double Victory: victory in the war abroad and victory over prejudice, segregation and Jim Crow laws at home.
Red Tails is the Lucasfilm movie about the Tuskegee Airmen. It will be released this Friday, January 20. Go see it opening weekend! If your students are old enough, seeing the movie could be an extra credit assignment. (In the interest of fairness, provide a free extra credit opportunity: a report on the Red Tails.)
Red Tails is an action movie. Rather than dramatize how the Tuskegee Airmen began with a civil rights struggle for equality in military service, the movie opens with their most dramatic and successful missions: protecting B-17 Flying Fortress bombers.
Bombers were unwieldy and vulnerable. They were slow and they had to fly steady. They couldn’t avoid the flak and they were shot down at an alarming rate. Fighter pilots charged with protecting them would chase kills to make Ace or simply flee the incoming fire.
Not the Tuskegee Airmen. The Red Tails never left their bombers and consequently never lost a bomber. These courageous pilots flew through the flak and stayed with their charge. The bomber groups requested the Red Tails because of their outstanding track record. Few of the bombers knew the pilots protecting them were black.
This past weekend, I was unbelievably excited to meet Tuskegee Airmen in an event to honor their legacy. I was thrilled to pose for pictures with three Tuskegee Airmen. I will post one picture for each entry in this miniseries.
Here I am with Lt. Col. Robert Ashby, a Tuskegee Airman. After graduating from the cadet program in 1945, he went on to have an illustrious career in the military, serving in the occupation of Japan, the Korean conflict, and finally in England, retiring as a lieutenant colonel in 1965. Lt. Col. Ashby was the first black captain for Frontier Airlines. He was also the first black pilot to reach mandatory retirement age (60 years) with a major airline. He was the only Tuskegee Airman hired by a scheduled airline. Read a short autobiography here. Read more about Lt. Col. Ashby’s military career on this fact sheet from Luke Air Force Base.
*Incidentally, Luke AFB is home of the Emerald Knights, one of my dad’s old squadrons and the one I remember most clearly. They were based at Homestead AFB near Miami when my dad flew with them.