A Short Documentary on the Courageous Tuskegee Airmen, Narrated by Morgan Freeman

For decades, would-be black mil­i­tary pilots saw their pos­si­ble future careers “can­celed,” as they say, by racism in the seg­re­gat­ed U.S. armed forces. Black ser­vice­men “were denied mil­i­tary lead­er­ship roles and skilled train­ing,” writes the offi­cial Tuskegee Air­men site, “because many believed they lacked qual­i­fi­ca­tions for com­bat duty.” Aspir­ing air­men would final­ly, after cam­paign­ing since World War I, be giv­en the chance to train and fly mis­sions in the ear­ly for­ties, after “civ­il rights orga­ni­za­tions and the black press exert­ed pres­sure that result­ed in the for­ma­tion of an all African-Amer­i­can pur­suit squadron based in Tuskegee, Alaba­ma.”

Actu­al­ly trained on a dozen air­fields around Tuskegee Uni­ver­si­ty, the air­men in the pro­gram “came away from those god­for­sak­en Alaba­ma fields with the unwa­ver­ing belief that their new­found abil­i­ties might just help over­come prej­u­dice, hearsay, and plain old dis­like,” says Mor­gan Free­man in his voiceover nar­ra­tion for “Red Tails,” the short doc­u­men­tary above. The “Red Tails” or “Red Tail Angels,” as they were called after the dis­tinc­tive col­or of their planes’ tails, round­ly sur­passed all expec­ta­tions, becom­ing some of the most suc­cess­ful fight­er pilots of the war.

“They would not be denied, despite the fact that they were unwel­come, unap­pre­ci­at­ed, and very much under­es­ti­mat­ed,” says Free­man. This is an under­state­ment. The belief that African Amer­i­cans lacked the capac­i­ty for com­pli­cat­ed flight train­ing was so preva­lent that even the pro­gres­sive Eleanor Roo­sevelt would give voice to it (in a demon­stra­tion to dis­prove it) when she vis­it­ed the bud­ding pro­gram in April 1941. “Can Negroes real­ly fly air­planes?” she cheer­ful­ly asked the program’s head Charles “Chief” Ander­son. He was oblig­ed to give her a demon­stra­tion in his Piper J‑3 Cub, against the objec­tions of her Secret Ser­vice detail.

Soon after­ward, the first Negro Air Corps pilots began train­ing, and the enlist­ed men cho­sen for the pro­gram became offi­cers. Part­ly because of turnover among white senior offi­cers in the pro­gram, who used it as a step­ping stone to pro­mo­tions and left after a few months, progress was slow. It wasn’t until Sep­tem­ber that Cap­tain Ben­jamin O. Davis, Jr. was giv­en the go-ahead for a solo flight, and not until April 1943 that the first squadron, the 99th, giv­en com­bat clear­ance. Their sto­ry has passed into leg­end, from the claim that the Red Tails nev­er lost a sin­gle bomber to the dra­mat­ic recre­ations of George Lucas’ Red Tails.

Lat­er declas­si­fied doc­u­ments appear to show that they had, in fact, lost bombers, like every oth­er fight­er group in the war. The fact hard­ly tar­nish­es the Tuskegee Airmen’s many medals or their pro­lif­i­cal­ly attest­ed skill and courage. It wouldn’t be until three years after the war end­ed that the mil­i­tary was final­ly deseg­re­gat­ed, though the air­men them­selves were laud­ed, pro­mot­ed, and sought out by pri­vate indus­try when they returned to civil­ian life. Robert Friend, who died in 2019 at the age of 99, went on to serve in Korea and Viet­nam, retired as a lieu­tenant colonel, worked on space launch vehi­cles, and formed his own aero­space com­pa­ny.

Charles McGee, who fea­tures in the short video doc­u­men­tary, just turned 100 this past Feb­ru­ary, and received a pro­mo­tion to brigadier gen­er­al. His reac­tion was ambiva­lent: “At first I would say ‘wow,’ but look­ing back, it would have been nice to have had that dur­ing active duty, but it didn’t hap­pen that way. But still, the recog­ni­tion of what was accom­plished, cer­tain­ly, I am pleased and proud to receive that recog­ni­tion.”

Davis, the Tuskegee program’s first solo pilot and com­man­der of the 99th Pur­suit Squadron “was instru­men­tal in draft­ing the Air Force plan to imple­ment” deseg­re­ga­tion in 1948, and he would become the Air Force’s first African Amer­i­can gen­er­al. Davis’ father, it so hap­pens, Ben­jamin O. Davis, Sr., had been the first black gen­er­al in the U.S. Army. The Tuskegee Air­men were undoubt­ed­ly pio­neers, but they were also part of a long tra­di­tion of black Amer­i­cans who fought for the U.S. since its begin­nings, “despite the fact,” as Free­man says, “that they were unwel­come, unap­pre­ci­at­ed, and very much under­es­ti­mat­ed.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How Two Teenage Dutch Sis­ters End­ed Up Join­ing the Resis­tance and Assas­si­nat­ing Nazis Dur­ing World War II

How to Behave in a British Pub: A World War II Train­ing Film from 1943, Fea­tur­ing Burgess Mered­ith

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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