Our WWII generation is fast fading from this life, and, as we all know, they were a remarkable generation. The stories of their lives and their sacrifices are legend.
But today, Memorial Day 2007, I'd like to concentrate on remembering a very small but significant part of that generation who truly changed the world. A small group of very dedicated men who, despite doubts about their intelligence and abilities, all because of their race, proved once and for all that they were as good as any and better than most in their selected field. These men, through dauntless courage, tremendous pride, a never-say-die attitude, and pure native ability put to rest for ever the belief that blacks could not serve in combat roles. They were the legendary Tuskegee Airmen.
I won't dwell on how they were formed, or the racial animus they endured to pursue their dream of flying. Suffice it to say it was brutal and awful. That they persevered is simply more of a testament to their honor and character.
What I would instead like to do is tell you some facts about the all-black 332nd Fighter Group of WWII fame. Between 1940 and 1946, about 1,000 black pilots were trained at Tuskegee. Those pilots all served in the 332nd, in one of four fighter squadrons, the 99th, the 100th, the 301st and the 302nd. The 332nd's aircraft were all marked by a distinctive blood red tail.
They flew over 15,000 sorties over North Africa and Europe and destroyed over 100 enemy aircraft.
Some of their honors:
The 99th Squadron distinguished itself by being awarded two Presidential Unit Citations (June-July 1943 and May 1944) for outstanding tactical air support and aerial combat in the 12th Air Force in Italy, before joining the 332nd Fighter Group.
The 332nd Fighter Group was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation for its longest bomber escort mission to Berlin, Germany, March 24, 1945. It destroyed three German ME-262 Jet fighters and damaged five additional jet fighters without losing any of the bombers or any of its own fighter aircraft to enemy fighters.
However, perhaps the most notable accomplishment among their many accomplishments during the war is the fact that they did not lose a single bomber to enemy fire in a 199 combat missions – a record unmatched by any other fighter group. They were so good, so tenacious and so protective of the bomber groups they escorted that they sometimes discouraged enemy fighter pilots from engaging the bombers merely by their presence. When bomber crews saw those distinctive red tails form up as their escort they thanked their lucky stars. And when the enemy saw them, they sought easier prey.
Their biggest accomplishment, however, didn't take place on the battlefield. Instead it took place in 1948 in the Oval office where President Harry Truman enacted Executive Order No. 9981 - directing equality of treatment and opportunity in all of the United States Armed Forces, which in time led to the end of racial segregation in the U.S. military forces. The old myths were dead forever and their death came at the hands of courageous and dauntless young men like the Tuskegee Airmen.
Recently the surviving Airmen were honored with the Congressional Gold Medal. One of the 300 who traveled to Washington DC for the honor was Charles "A-Train" Dryden of Atlanta. Said Dryden, 86, "Obviously it was an honor, but on the other hand I was saddened that so many of my buddies passed on without recognition."
But then Dryden said something which, coming from someone who had not only seen, but lived through the era in which people of his race were so marginalized, makes you understand the greatness of America and men like Dryden:
"What sets America apart from all the nations all the way back to antiquity," the retired lieutenant colonel said, "is that no other country has anywhere close to an ability to change."
Indeed. To those of the Airmen still living, a salute to their honor, courage and character. And on this Memorial Day,to those among them who have since passed on, a profound expression of thanks for what they did to both serve their country and make it a better place for all.
I’ll take the "pranging" you’ll be giving me and say you’ve missed the mark here...
Read the novel 761 and get back to me. It’s an account of the 761st Medium Tank Battalion. The 761st was a "Coloured" armour battalion It fought from October 1944 until war’s end. The first 30 pages ought to be required reading for any class on National Security Affairs or for that matter in a Basic Combat Arms Officer/NCO Course. His description of the effects of the L/71 armour piercing 8.8 cm round on the human carapace is truly sobering, it puts your hand on what combat truly IS, for those who have not or will not experience in a way that is unforgettable.
The novel is a marvelous account of the men who fought in sub-standard tanks in an army that didn’t care too much for them. The chapters on moving thru the rear areas in search of parts and ammunition simply are incomprehensible to a modern reader. The two men went ARMED to prevent their lunching from rear area troops of the US ARMY!
It’s a profoundly moving work. And I’d give the tip of the hat to the 761st over the Tuskegee Airmen and the 332nd. Simply put the 332nd got to sleep on a cot and have hot meals when it wasn’t doing it’s job. The men of the 761st didn’t get that luxury all that often. The 332nd flew a state-of-the-art combat aircraft, the P-51 Mustang. The 761st, like most armoured units, fought with a barely adequate M-4 Sherman, in their unit the standard was the medium velocity 7.5 cm gun, not the later 76mm of the "Easy Eight" Sherman. And, as usual, fighter pilots, got the glory and the press, but it was the muddy, gasoline-stained armoured troops and "GI’s" that defeated Hitler’s Wehrmacht, with far less glamour and coverage and, on the whole, with a whole lot more death and mutilation.
Bottom-Line: for me, my family and all my friends are Ground Hogs, Pongo’s, PBI’s and my heart will always lie with those men, more so than the "Knights of the Air" and so a Coloured Armour Battalion stands head and shoulders over a Coloured Fighter Group, simply because what the 761st did has gotten almost NO press and was a sight nastier work than being an P-51 driver. So here’s to the "Black Panthers" of the 761st!
So you’re saying the Tuskegee Airman didn’t help destroy the myth that blacks couldn’t fight and didn’t help change the country to a better one?
If not, how did I ’miss the mark’?
I wasn’t making that point McQ...I was saying I tip my hat to the 761st more so than the 332nd. Just as I tip my hat to the 1st Armoured or 1st Infantry Dvision or the 51st Infantry Division (North Umbrian) over members of the 9th Air Force.
And I believe that the men of the 761st and the various Tank Destroyer Battalions (Towed) did the same thing, McQ. And along the way, they got a whole lot muddier and bloodier than the men of the 332nd. Unless of course the 332nd had a day in the fun and mud like one of the Coloured Tank Destroyer units had in the Hurtgen Forest outside of Klinghofer (?) or Schmidt, firing from the open on dug-in German infantry, which won THEM a Distinguished Unit Citation!
As to the 332nd equipment, well they had, for their period, the BEST aircraft the US was fielding. The P-40 Warhawk WAS a frontline fighter in 1942/43. They transitioned to one the PREMIER combat aircraft of the Second World War the P-47 Thunderbolt and then onto one the greaest aircraft created, the P-51! The Coloured troops made do with the earlier M-4’s and the towed 7.6cm anti-tank guns. But to be fair to the US Army and them, they generally had the same equipment as their counter-parts...they may have gotten it a little later than their white companions, but I’m sure they got the equipment. Simply put, the US Army Ground Forces had equipment that was good for 1943, early 1944, but that was BARELY adequate for the period June 1944 on...Unlike the Army AIR Forces, who fielded first-rate equipment throughout the war.
So, the 761st bled more, struggled more, and accomplished as much, all without benefit of Eleanor Roosevelt wandering by to see them or folks "Ooh’ing and Aah’ing" over , then and after the fact. I believe they demonstrated to the men of the US infantry divisions they supported that coloured troops were JUST as capable of fighting, as the men of the 332nd did, all with a WHOLE lot less publicity.
Joe, not to belabor this and I’m not at all offended or mad, but again, I’d like to know what "mark" I missed with this post?
A hat tip to others is fine, I have no problem whatsoever with that or you believing what you believe concerning those other units (although I don’t share your belief), but you pointedly said I "missed the mark".
If the purpose of the post was to thank a group for their service and sacrifice as well as helping to destroy a pernicious myth and make this a better country, how did I "miss the mark"?
I keep saying you didn’t miss the mark! Urrah 332nd!
Just I’d give a shout out to the men of 761st, first. simply because you can ask a lot of folks about Coloured Troops in WWII and they will whip out the Tuskegee Airman, that’s fine, but the men of one tank battalion and at least one Tank Destroyer Battalion did the same job, with a whole lot more blood shed and a whole lot less Press. I doubt very many folks are going to trot out the 761st, they may recall the 442 RCT, but the 761st not so much. That’s all I’m saying...
Personally I’d give props to a Graves Registration Unit before I’d give a shout out to a Fighter Group, but that’s me...only RAF Bomber Command and the bomber crews of the US 8th Air Force truly are in the same category as the men of the 761st or the men of the 1st Infantry or the 28th Infantry-having suffered proportionally GREATER casualties than their infantry counter-parts in WWII.
Then as today, the Rangers or the Fighter pilots or the SEALS, ohhh everyne knows about them, which is fine, as far as it goes...I just come back to the line grunt or the line artilleryman or the line Mortuary Affairs person, doing their job in obscurity, but doing it well. No one’s gonna make a movie about the 8745th Mortuary Affairs Detachment, but that doesn’t diminish the honour of their service.
Bottom-line: My heart lies with the US Army and British Army ground forces, that do the job, get muddy, do the dying, and generally don’t get the headlines that folks like the 332nd do. Dead’s dead, and I’m sure that burning to death in a combat aircraft whose canopy has jammed is a d@mned nasty way to go, but it happened to the men of the 332nd a whole lot less than, burning to death in a Sherman whose hatch had jammed...and along the way the pilot made more, had clean sheets, an O-Club, whilst the armour crewman had a dirty fatigues and a bed-roll, C-rat’s, and the joy of "breaking track" or pouring a 55 gallon drum of gasoline into the engine compartment to clean the engine and then draining out the fuel.
SDN, really I’ll have to get it, I understand there is a book entitled "Brothers in Arms" also about 761st. So hooray the 761st gets it’s due..It is rumoured that Kareem Abdul Jabar and Morgan Freeman are trying to create a film about the 761st, I see.
There needs to be a movie about the 761st. This is a piece of history that needs to be remembered, just like the 332nd.
As an aside, wasn’t Patton the first to integrate rifle companies in WWII? And didn’t he actually request the 761st? I seem to remember reading that he told them they were in 3rd Army because "I will only have the best"?
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