Glenn Flickinger kicks off Black History Month with a talk about the famed Tuskegee Airmen of World War II. The VBC is hosting this event with Upper Saint Clair Township Library. Glenn presents the history through the story of one its youngest pilots: Colonel Harry Stewart.
Registration is required. Space limited to 100.
Who were the Tuskegee Airmen?
Three years before the attacks on Pearl Harbor, the Roosevelt administration launched the Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP) to boost the nation’s pool of licensed pilots in case of war. The need for skilled airmen was so great that few noticed that the enabling legislation included funding for Black pilot training.
Over 2,500 colleges and flight schools participated in the CPTP, including the historically Black Tuskegee Institute, Hampton University, Virginia State University, Delaware State University, and Howard University. As the war approached, the need for military pilots, combined with twenty years of political pressure by Civil Rights activists, compelled the War Department to train African Americans as officers and pilots in racially segregated facilities.
The all-Black 99th Fighter Squadron started training at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama on November 15, 1941 and graduated its first class of aviators in the spring of 1942. The squadron saw its first combat flying from bases in French Morocco, North Africa in April 1943. It continued combat service in the air war for Sicily and the invasion of Italy. In February 1944, as more Black pilots arrived from training, the USAAF joined the 99th Squadron with three other fighter squadrons (the 100th, the 301st, and the 302nd) into the all-Black 332nd Fighter Group commanded by Colonel Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. Flying P-47s and P-51s, the fighter group became legendary for escorting 15th Air Force bombers from their bases in Italy.
Over the course of the war, 355 Tuskegee pilots flew combat missions from the Mediterranean Theater. Eighty of them died in service, and 31 others were taken prisoner.
But what we call the “Tuskegee Airmen” also included thousands of Black men and women who trained and served as navigators, bombardiers, mechanics, instructors, nurses, cooks, and technicians of all sorts. Taken together, about 15,000 men and women took part in what the Tuskegee Airmen, Inc. calls the “Tuskegee Experience” from 1941 to 1949.
The Veterans Breakfast Club is proud to have captured the stories of two remarkable Tuskegee Airman. Lt. Col. Harry Stewart, Jr., flew 43 combat missions as a P-51 pilot, earning a Distinguished Flying Cross as a result of three dogfight victories in a single day in 1945. Harry joined our Greatest Generation Live program on May 25, 2021.
We were also fortunate enough to interview Wendell Freeland, who joined the Army Air Corps in 1943 as a student at Howard University. Wendell served as a bombardier on a B-25 with the all-Black 477th Bomb Group. But, despite his rank, he remained a second-class citizen in Army. He was arrested twice for defying the Army’s strict segregation policies.
The second arrest occurred at Freeman Field, Indiana, when Wendell and other black officers entered the all-white officers’ club and waited to be served. When Wendell refused to sign, read, or even acknowledge the regulation strictly separating white and black officers, he was charged with mutiny, a crime punishable by execution. Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall eventually ordered the charges to be dropped for most of the men, including Wendell. The Freeman Field Mutiny was an early blow against official segregation in the armed forces, an important step in the Civil Rights Movement.