How the Tuskegee Airmen Worked

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Candace Keener: Hello, and welcome to the podcast. I'm editor, Candace Keener, joined by staff writer, Jane McGrath.

Jane McGrath: Hey there.

Candace Keener: Hey, Jane, do you remember a little while ago when we did a podcast about the Navaho code talkers in World War II?

Jane McGrath: Yeah, that was one of your favorites in particular.

Candace Keener: I love the Navaho code talkers. Well, there's another minority group that contributed very much so to the success of the Allied forced in World War II that we didn't cover in that podcast. I believe we said were going to save it for another day, and that day is today. So buckle up tight because we're going to talk about the Tuskegee Airmen.

Jane McGrath: This is a really cool African American Army Air Corps during World War II. They contributed a lot to the war. But to give you some context, before that, the African Americans weren't allowed to fly at all in the military. In addition to that, the whole military was segregated into units. And throughout World War II, it took efforts like the Tuskegee Airmen and a lot of other African American heroes during World War II to change that policy.

Candace Keener: Desegregation was made official through executive order 9981, issued by President Harry Truman. Now an executive order, just to bring you up to speed, is a statement from the President. And they've been in practice since George Washington's administration and they're made constitutional by Article II: Section I. Basically an executive order guides federal agencies to carry out laws and policies that Congress has passed. And I've gotten some good information about executive orders from a website called And the website explains that executive orders don't have to be approved by Congress, but it is a statement directly from the President and what he says goes. He's the Commander in Chief and he's the Chief Executive, and he lays the laws of the land.

Jane McGrath: This is an important point to bring up, is that it's not subject to legislative vote. So when something, especially in this case, will have a lot of difficulty passing through Congress, the President can, in certain circumstances, circumvent that route.

Candace Keener: By issuing the executive order. And there's a couple of variations on the typical executive order, and one is a statement that pertains to defense and security. And another one is more ceremonial in nature. The example that gave was National Bring Your Kid to Work Day, which we actually had at the office last week.

Jane McGrath: I didn't know that was an executive order. That's interesting.

Candace Keener: Apparently so. And what you mentioned before, about presidents using the executive order to circumvent Congress, this was a sticky issue that came up during the Bill Clinton administration. And he was known to pass hundreds upon hundreds of executive orders to get by Republicans in Congress. I think he's still very much critiqued for doing so. But some pretty famous ones in history are 9981, which as we've learned is Truman's statement to integrate the military. And then Eisenhower's executive order to desegregate schools. The Kennedy and Johnson era passed executive orders to help end discrimination in Federal housing. And then Reagan actually issued an executive order to prevent Federal funds being used for campaigns about abortion, which Clinton later overturned. So even just from these examples, you can see the wide scope that an executive order can pertain to. And 9981 was very important, because if you look at the premise of World War II, it was essentially hinged upon the fact that Nazis were discriminating against the Jews. And so the idea that the United States would become involved in a war on foreign soil that was about discrimination of an ethnic group, and yet within the United States there was still discrimination toward African Americans. It seemed very contradictory.

Jane McGrath: It was a shot in the arm to show Americans, I think, where racism could lead. Certain public figures before the 1930s, in World War II, were behind eugenics. And I think it had more acceptance at this point. But then when you saw where that led in Nazi Germany - you can make the point that the American public didn't know everything that was going on during the holocaust until after the war, but they did know some racist laws that were going on, discriminatory laws against the Jews during the Nazi era. So you can definitely see how the Americans saw where eugenics was leading. It made them look upon themselves a little harsher about their own discriminatory laws. And they said, "Well, we can't throw rocks if we're" -

Candace Keener: If we live in a glass house.

Jane McGrath: Exactly.

Candace Keener: And that's what's so poignant about the order. You can look it up online. You can go to and find a copy of the executive order. It's from July 26, 1948. And I'll just read part of it:It is hereby declared to be the policy of the President that there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion or national origin. This policy shall be put into effect as rapidly as possible, having due regard to the time required to effectuate any necessary changes without impairing efficiency or morale. And a little bit later in the podcast we're going to get to the language that Truman used and how people in Congress actually manipulated to prolong integration in the military. But the executive order that Truman issued would not have been possible, I don't think, without the successes of the Tuskegee Airmen. This really proved that integration wasn't just necessary on the grounds of equality for all mankind, but because this group proved that African American pilots in the military had such bravery and valor and such skill they could not ignored and treated as unequal anymore.

Jane McGrath: And we should also mention that, when you think of the civil rights movement, it didn't take effect until the '50s and '60s. But you have very important predecessors to people like Martin Luther King, Jr. in A. Philip Randolph and Grant Reynolds and they were really active during this time. They ended up being very active in pushing for the executive order 9981. But before that, they were very active in pushing Franklin Roosevelt into issuing executive order 8802. And this banned discrimination in industries that had Federal contracts, which was very important when the war was breaking out in Europe and the United States was active in a lot of war production. And so this order made it possible for a lot of jobs to open up for African Americans. And this prompted a mass migration of African Americans out of the Jim Crow south. So they were moving to cities that - discrimination was certainly still present, but not as severe as in the south.

Candace Keener: You're talking about places like Los Angeles, Seattle, and Detroit.

Jane McGrath: Exactly. So they're enjoying new freedoms and they had a sense of empowerment at this time. So you can see, with this initial FDR executive order, things starting to change and the seeds of the civil rights movement starting. And this leads into the idea of the Tuskegee Airmen because the civil rights leaders also pushed for a change in the rule about how African Americans were banned from flying in the military. And when this changed, the war department created the 99th Pursuit Squadron of the U.S. Army Air Corps. And we should note this was the Air Force, because the Air Force didn't quite exist yet.

Candace Keener: Right. And if you look at the history of the Tuskegee Airmen, and even the history of African Americans in World War II, there's a lot of great stories of men who just through off the chains of oppression and took the opportunity to serve their country. And one that comes to mind, and one that Jane's written about in this fantastic article about the Tuskegee Airmen, is Doris Miller, who was a cook on the USS West Virginia. And he happened to be there in Pearl Harbor the day that Pearl Harbor was attacked. And he'd been ordered to abandon ship. He actually manned a 50-calibre antiaircraft machine gun and shot down some Japanese planes.

Jane McGrath: Even though he had no training.

Candace Keener: He had no training.

Jane McGrath: It's fantastic. It's a great story, especially since this was the beginning of the American entrance into the war. And immediately you see this heroism, this valor, from and African American.

Candace Keener: Precisely. And so I think the civil rights organizations that existed at this time would use examples like the Doris Miller story and then other examples of African Americans showing valor, and saying, "With training imagine what these men could do." So this leads us to Tuskegee, Alabama.

Jane McGrath: That's right. So they created the 99th Squadron. They decided to train them at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, which also had an airfield. It was segregated, obviously. There were segregations going on at this point, but it was a great move forward because they were able to fly in the military.

Candace Keener: They started out with single engine planes and they were led by Captain Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. And he would later become the first African American General in the Air Force. But I think he was known for being a real disciplinarian.

Jane McGrath: And interestingly his dad became the first African American general in the army. He came in with some distinguished family there. I think that family in particular made some big strides for African Americans in the military.

Candace Keener: They started out with training in areas like navigation and meteorology, and those who qualified went on to the airfield for pilot training. And the first class graduated in March of 1942, but there was one more year of training before they would actually get to fight in the war. And their first real opportunity, or their entre into the war I should say, was the Allied invasion of Italy.

Jane McGrath: This happened when their first mission happened June 2, 1943. And they flew P-40 Warhawks. This was a very successful attack. And a month later they successfully fought the German Air Force. So they started out with a bang. Unfortunately, there was a lag after that, where they didn't have kills on their record for a few more months after that. So the colonel of the fighter group that they were a part of was dissatisfied with the 99th Tuskegee men, and he was so upset at them he actually filed a complaint. And he said that they weren't aggressive enough in fighting, and he said that they also lacked discipline, which is a real strike. Obviously, you have this experimental first African American squadron flying, and you have their colonel immediately issuing this complaint about them. It could've dissolved the experiment entirely.

Candace Keener: And I'm inclined to believe that the trajectory of this story, the Tuskegee Airmen, isn't too different from what we learned about with the Navajo code talkers, the idea that these men were trained so thoroughly and then sent to help people in the field communicate messages. But they weren't used properly. People didn't fully understand what their mission and purpose there was. So they were deemed worthless and unhelpful.

Jane McGrath: You could say that when they got there people had it out for them, so maybe they started off -

Candace Keener: Yeah. And until these men were able to prove that they knew their stuff, they were skilled; they just needed better direction and more seamless integration into the warfront to be helpful.

Jane McGrath: Davis argued that point, and that's what prevented them from dissolving entirely is that, when the complaint was filed, he was able to argue for the Tuskegee Airmen. And they did an investigation and found that they were doing just as well as everybody else in their circumstances. So they were able to go back into combat. January 1944, the squadron helped fight a German air invasion and shot down 12 planes. And this was able to get the unit a distinguished unit citation. So this was one of their first prestigious awards for something they had done.

Candace Keener: Right. And some, in World War II, there were at least 909,000 African Americans serving in the military, with 500,000 of those overseas. So with those numbers and with the distinguished unit citation we have concrete evidence that these are very effectual men and they are serving their country. So that's when we have the beginning of the executive order coming into play.

Jane McGrath: To give you some more context on what was going on in the government regarding these civil rights issues in the military, during the '40s you see a lot of monumental Supreme Court cases regarding civil rights at home, at least. In 1944 they banned all white political primaries that were occurring in the south. And two years after that, they ruled that segregation in interstate bus travel was unconstitutional. So you see the Supreme Court getting in line with the civil rights issues at this time. And also Harry Truman, he wrote that he saw the hypocrisy going on in the fact that his troops were overseas promoting democracy, promoting acceptance. And at the same time, his own military was segregated. And so you have the President and the Supreme Court in line with trying to push this civil rights issue, but unfortunately at the time, Congress had a lot of southern congressmen in it that were blocking a lot of civil rights laws at this time, like anti-lynching legislation.

Candace Keener: And that's not to say that southerners were the only barriers to fulfilling the orders of the 9981 executive order. I think once it was put into play, there were nearly - five years is the common number I keep seeing - five years passed before people began to fully ingrate African Americans into the military and to treat them with acceptance, dignity, and camaraderie that is befitting a man of equal rank in the military.

Jane McGrath: That's a good point. And the events leading up to the actual order, you have Randolph and Reynolds, the civil rights leaders. They actually formed the committee against Jim Crow in military service in training. And when they formed that, they actually sent a letter to Truman in 1948, threatening that if he didn't make this order of military integration that the African American youth would actually boycott the draft. And this was a huge issue for Truman, especially since because he was in an election year. 1948 was an election year for him, coming up to reelection. So you have this situation where he wants the black vote at this time.

Candace Keener: And it's 10 percent, right?

Jane McGrath: Right. African Americans made up about 10 percent of the population in America. So the black vote was a significant part of his reelection, and this was able to solidify it.

Candace Keener: And making promises like this is not something that ended with Truman. If you'll recall, in Barack Obama's campaign, he actually promised to overturn the don't ask, don't tell policy in the military. Because right now, gays and lesbians aren't allowed to serve with full disclosure. We have the Clinton era of the don't ask, don't tell policy.

Jane McGrath: A compromise.

Candace Keener: A compromise, but from what I can understand it can be more restrictive than helpful, the idea that you serve with a mask over your identity. And you serve in a little bit of fear. But now, with recruitment at an all-time low, people are willing to overlook the don't ask, don't tell policy. Anyone who's willing to go and fight in the war, is being tapped into service.

Jane McGrath: So you can see the executive order language thing - race, color, religion, and national origin - you can see sexual orientation added to that, too.

Candace Keener: Exactly. And the don't ask, don't tell policy is almost 16 years old now, if you can believe that. I can't believe 16 years have gone by. But on a happier note, back in line with the valor and bravery of the Tuskegee Airmen, George Lucas - famous of course for that little movie about - I don't know -

Jane McGrath: I think it's Star Wars. I think.

Candace Keener: That sounds right. Anyway, he made a movie like Star Wars or something. And I read on The Daily Planet that he's been wanting to do a film about the Tuskegee Airmen for almost 20 years, and he has finally begun filming in Europe a movie called Red Tails. And it's going to star Cuba Gooding, Jr., Terrance Howard, Ne-Yo, and Method Man.

Jane McGrath: Yeah, that's cool because Cuba Gooding, Jr. played Doris Miller in the Pearl Harbor movie a few years ago.

Candace Keener: There you go. Yeah.

Jane McGrath: So that's appropriate. It's a long time coming, because the story's made for Hollywood, I think.

Candace Keener: It is. And one of the directors that he has on board is Anthony Hemingway, famous for his work with HBO's The Wire. And again, entertainment news. I'm sure some of these details are subject to change.

Jane McGrath: But when they do come out, hopefully we'll be talking about it on our blog as well.

Candace Keener: Exactly. Jane and I blog everyday about the latest in politics, history news -

Jane McGrath: Discoveries - everything.

Candace Keener: Everything, really. So if you haven't seen our blog yet, you'll probably get a chuckle and maybe even learn a little something. Be sure also to send us your feedback at And if you want to learn more about the Tuskegee Airmen, you can read the article on which this podcast is based called, What Was So Important About Executive Order 9981? on

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