Pride & prejudice: The Tuskegee Airmen

If you already read this on one of my other blogs, I apologize. But it’s a really great project, and I feel I must brag/promote it a bit.

Search for information on the Tuskegee Airmen, and you’ll see the all-black fighter group — the only one of its kind in World War II — was awarded eight Purple Hearts. The Purple Heart is awarded when a service member is wounded in combat. The 332nd Fighter Group, known today as part of the Tuskegee Airmen, included more than 450 pilots and hundreds of mechanics, navigators and other service members. Take into account the dozens of pilots who were reported missing and killed in action during World War II, and it seems unlikely that there only eight Purple Hearts were awarded.

The 332nd Fighter Group was segregated — it had separate training facilities (Tuskegee Army Air Field, Ala.) and its own base in Europe (Ramitelli Air Field, Italy). It is widely thought that racism even played a role in Lt. Lee A. “Buddy” Archer’s status as an ace pilot. An ace is any pilot who shoots down five or more enemy planes. After Archer shot down three planes in a single day, which would have brought his total to five, one of his previous aerial kills was changed to a half-credit. The war in Europe ended in 1945. In 2008, Archer was officially classified an ace.

After several months of reviewing military documents (not easy since more than 16 million World War I and World War II military personnel files were destroyed in a fire in 1973), St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter Phillip O’Connor and I have found more than 50 Tuskegee Airmen who were awarded a Purple Heart.

This is not the first time the history of the Tuskegee Airmen has been revised: For many years, it was said that the 332nd Fighter Group, which often escorted bombers to targets in Italy, Germany and Austria, had not lost a bomber plane to enemy aircraft. In 2007, an Air Force report identified at least 25 bombers had been shot down while escorted by the 332nd Fighter Group. (That is still quite a feat for any fighter group.)

I love the opportunity to dig into military history, so getting to work on this project was very interesting. Some of the great “finds” included Toni Frissell’s photos of the 332nd Fighter Group at Ramitelli — the only known professional photos of the group. (The fact that a woman known for fashion photography was shooting in a war zone is also an interesting tale.)

It included great stories, like that of Lt. Gene C. Browne who, after a stranger remarked it was unfortunate the pilot never flew again after World War II said “What a shame it would have been if I had never flown at all.”

It included unusual stories, like Flight Officer James H. Fischer who was shot down, crashed and still managed to make it back to Ramitelli in time for supper. Or like Lt. Col. Alexander Jefferson, who was awarded his Purple Heart nearly 60 years after the war ended after secret ledgers kept by a fellow prisoner of war documenting prisoners and injuries were found and published. Or Capt. Richard D. Macon who survived a crash-landing and was forced to travel several hundred miles to a POW camp before his broken neck was set.

It included talking to the daughter and granddaughter of Lt. William E. Griffin, and seeing the photos and newspaper clippings they had saved over the years.

It included finding newspaper articles from 1944 about Lt. George McCrumby’s sensational crash-landing.

It included finding military reports that proved what really happened to Lt. James McCullin, Lt. Ronald W. Reeves and Lt. Sherman H. White Jr.

It included listening to Lt. Robert L. Martin and Capt. Luther H. Smith talk about their experiences.

It included 46 more stories of heroes, and another small stack of names of airmen who I’m still researching. I really hope you enjoy the project at least half as much as I have.