The Air Force was the first service to integrate its ranks fully. It began the process in 1949 because the Tuskegee Airmen, despite suffering terrible discrimination in World War II, had demonstrated that they could fly and fight against Hitler's best. This achievement undermined the foundation of segregation--the belief that blacks were inferior to whites. If blacks could arm, maintain, and fly airplanes as well as whites could, no one could assert a legitimate basis for segregation.
Many who have studied the subject of armed forces integration credit President Harry S. Truman with this reform. The fact is, however, that the Air Force's racial integration announcement came in April 1948, months before the presidential decree. Only in July 1948 did the President announce his Executive Order 9981. At that, the order called only for equal opportunity and never mentioned integration.
Ten Times WrongShortly after the end of World War I, the War Department asked the Army War College to study the possible military role of blacks, with an eye to expanding their participation in the combat arms. Between 1924 and 1939, the Army War College investigated the underemployment of blacks on ten separate occasions. Each time, racism kept the students and faculty from reaching rational, fair-minded conclusions.
The Air Corps at that time did not employ blacks in any role. However, President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940 directed the Air Corps to build an all-black flying unit. The presidential order propelled the air organization to create the 99th Pursuit Squadron. To develop the required pilot force, the Air Corps opened a new training base in central Alabama, near Tuskegee.
Their first commander, Col. Frederick V. H. Kimble, was a poor choice for the job; he was at best indifferent and in all likelihood antagonistic to their success. Moreover, the flying instructors at the airfield during World War II, with the exception of Col. Noel F. Parrish, refused to socialize with the black pilots. All but Colonel Parrish refused to join the Tuskegee AAF Officers' Club. Once in the Mediterranean combat zone, Tuskegee Airmen were deliberately isolated in the 33d Fighter Group.
Threat to MoraleAll of these elements harmed morale, and the spirit of the 332d Fighter Group (which, by 1944, had united Tuskegee Airmen from the 99th, 100th, 301st, and 302d Fighter Squadrons) was somewhat damaged by segregation and the discrimination that accompanied it. However, the 332d's attitude and esprit were positive compared to that of the other Tuskegee Airmen flying unit, the 477th Bomb Group (Medium). The bomber group never got into combat as a result of its white commander's bigoted personnel policies. The commander was eventually fired because he had sabotaged his unit but not before he did great damage to the spirit of his troops.
In the spring of 1941, the first African-American enlisted men began training to become maintainers and the first thirteen pilot candidates entered training. From that time until the end of the war, Tuskegee AAF graduated 950 pilots and formed four fighter squadrons and four medium bomb squadrons. About half the pilot trainees flew in combat.
Because of the success of the 332d Fighter Group and several other much smaller units, the War Department again reexamined the role of blacks in the armed forces. This massive study, "Participation of Negro Troops in the Post-War Military Establishment," concluded that blacks with the same training and aptitude as whites performed satisfactorily.
Dead-End PoliciesGeneral Edwards believed that segregation was a defective personnel practice. The services were forced to place educated and high-aptitude blacks in all-black units, and almost all of these were support units. Thus, blacks who had sufficient education and aptitude to rise in rank and contribute in combat areas were prevented from doing so.
General Edwards knew this practice was wasteful, but he could do nothing about it so long as the Air Force was segregated. When the Air Force became independent in 1947, General Edwards directed Lt. Col. Jack F. Marr, a subordinate staff officer, to study racial segregation to see if abandoning it was advisable.
Colonel Marr's study confirmed General Edwards's thinking. In the spring of 1948, the personnel chief convinced Gen. Carl A. Spaatz, the first Air Force Chief of Staff, and Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg, the vice chief, that sound personnel management practices demanded racial integration. These general officers had no trouble selling this idea to their civilian leaders, Secretary Stuart Symington and Assistant Secretary Eugene M. Zuckert, because both abhorred racial segregation. The Air Force, furthermore, was in harmony with the thinking of Defense Secretary James V. Forrestal, who also favored integration.
The Air Force was the first service to announce this dramatic change. At the time that the Air Force was declaring its intent to integrate, Secretary of the Army Kenneth C. Royall was asserting that the Army had no intention whatsoever of racially integrating. He also formally complained to the Secretary of Defense that the Air Force was breaking the united front and demanded that Secretary Forrestal stop Air Force integration.
Selling the PolicyIt took General Edwards about a year to carry out his policy because some senior officers had to be sold on integration. However, there was widespread support. In addition to the Chief and vice chief of staff, supporters included Gen. Nathan F. Twining, who commanded the World War II Tuskegee Airmen as Fifteenth Air Force commander, and Lt. Gen. Elwood R. "Pete" Quesada, who commanded the postwar Tactical Air Command, which included the 332d FW at Lockbourne.
A persistent contention was that whites would never tolerate black supervision, but even that objection was buried by Col. Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., commander of the Tuskegee Airmen at Lockbourne from 1946 to 1949 and base commander.
Although the 332d Fighter Wing at Lockbourne was all black, the tenant units at the base were white, and these outfits had to work with their black hosts for support. More significantly, the civilians employed by the 332d and Lockbourne were white and had black supervisors. Every inspector general inspection conducted by Tactical Air Command in this period determined that Colonel Davis and his post had smooth and harmonious personnel relations. Whites would indeed work for blacks.
The Air Force pressed on with integration. General Edwards briefed the uniformed leadership in April 1949, telling the senior commanders that the "Air Force [had] adopted a policy of integration under which Negro officers and airmen may be assigned to any duty in any Air Force unit or activity in accordance with the qualifications of the individual and the need of the service." This was done, he said, out of a need for efficiency, economy, and effective airpower.
A Single CriterionGeneral Edwards put no limits on the number of blacks who could qualify for integrated positions, and he insisted that the only criterion for employment was ability. He directed that commanders give this new policy their wholehearted support and undivided attention, for without their backing and care it would not work. General Edwards then promulgated several documents--the regulation calling for integration and a classified supplement to the regulation that insisted the men be assigned according to their specialties (barring commanders from employing engine mechanics as janitors and so forth) and that told commanders that they were personally responsible for making the new policy work.
By the end of 1949, 7,402 African-Americans still were serving in all-black units. But 11,456 were serving in mixed-race units, and 7,033 were in transit to units that had formerly been all white. Blacks at that point made up seven percent of the enlisted force and twelve percent of the troops in Air Force basic training. By the end of 1951, the last all-black service unit was dissolved and the Air Force was officially integrated.
Unquestionably, the Air Force benefitted from employing people of all races based solely on ability, and so did the United States. This essential reform began with the Tuskegee Airmen and their demonstration of discipline, skill, and courage. This reality was made explicit by Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Ronald R. Fogleman at the Tuskegee Airmen Convention last August in Atlanta, Ga.
"You engaged one of the most formidable military establishments in the world--the Luftwaffe. . . . When you engaged this force in combat and came away victorious, you carried not only your own pride and your personal accomplishments but also the idea that never again would anybody deny a man or woman the opportunity to serve our country in any capacity because of the color of his or her skin."
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