Reflections of a Tuskegee Airman
One young boy cut classes to hang out at a nearby airfield, experience flight, build model airplanes. He was hooked.
Another saw himself as an airborne veterinarian someday, jumping from one remote Texas locale to another to tend to suffering animals.
Yet another just wanted to emulate the daring, glamorous fighter pilots of World War I.
Such were the youthful dreams of the famed Tuskegee Airmen – the “experimental,” segregated and ultimately triumphant African-American aviators of World War II. They rose above brazen racism – and an absurd 1925 U.S. Army War College Study that shamefully branded blacks intrinsically incapable – to fight and in many cases die valiantly for this country, and for the freedom of foreigners.
Then they came back home only to have to fight for their own freedom. These flying aces who had just provided cover for U.S. bombers over Europe – and, when they could, returned to strafe enemy targets of opportunity – were kept out of the well-appointed officers’ club after the war. We built you your own, they were told. Separate and unequal.
For once, they didn’t follow orders. Having flown for their country, they decided to make a stand for themselves and those to come, defiantly and repeatedly entering that whites-only officers club at the ironically named Freeman Field in Indiana. They were arrested, some court-martialed, one convicted. But two historic points had been made: that African-Americans were equal, often exceptional, and must be treated as such.
“Nobody knew anything about what we had done” in the war, one of the airmen lamented in the 2009 Bryton Entertainment documentary In Their Own Words: The Tuskegee Airmen.
Well, they know now.
They know enough that the men’s insane punishments were later expunged – and, in 2007, Congress bestowed and President George W. Bush awarded them the Congressional Gold Medal. They know enough that the airmen’s exploits were celebrated in the motion picture Red Tails by the legendary George Lucas. They know enough that the surviving airmen were invited to President Barack Obama’s inauguration.
And they know enough that the death of a Tuskegee Airman these many decades later is cause for stopping and saluting – especially when he’s a community’s last, as Robert T. McDaniel was Fort Worth’s at his death March 19 at the august age of 96. He will receive a sendoff worthy of a head of state here Thursday.
McDaniel was valedictorian and president of I.M. Terrell High School’s class of 1940. He went on to earn both a bachelor’s and master’s of science at Prairie View A&M, and became a teacher, counselor, coach and principal in Fort Worth ISD schools. Many of his students never knew what a giant stood before them, of his pioneering role in World War II and in the civil rights struggle. Indeed, McDaniel was among those in the Freeman Field protest, which helped inspire President Truman’s desegregation of the military.
The skyward dreams of little African-American boys have long sense taken flight, despite a horribly misguided society’s attempt to keep them grounded. In the process, Robert T. McDaniel and his fellow Tuskegee Airmen not only helped win a war abroad but dignity here at home. American heroes, all.
Amazingly, one of the Tuskegee Airmen said he enlisted because “I thought I owed the country something.” It took far too long for people in this country to fathom what they owed these men.
But they know now.