Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Correcting the Record

It has become a part of our military lore. During World War II, the nation's first black fighter pilots--better known as the Tuskegee Airmen--never lost a bomber they escorted to enemy fire.

But is that record accurate? The official historian of the Tuskegee Airmen is now expressing doubts about the veracity of that claim. William Holton, the group's historian for the past decade, has uncovered combat reports indicating that enemy fighters shot down some bombers while being escorted by pilots from the all-black 332nd Fighter Group. The 332nd was the official unit designation for the Tuskegee Airmen after they entered combat in the European Theater in World War II.

Holton told the Montgomery Advertiser and the Associated Press that he has discovered a handful of reports, describing the loss of several bombers during missions when the 332nd's famous red-tailed P-51s provided escort. One report, dated 31 August 1944, praises the group's commander, then-Colonel (and later, General) Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., saying "he so skillfully deployed his squadrons that in spite of the large number of enemy fighters, the bomber formation suffered only a few losses." Other reports--drawn from unit archives--describe U.S. B-17s and B-24s shot down while being escorted by Tuskegee pilots. The airmen took their name from the Alabama town where they trained before entering combat in World War II.

Mr. Holton's revised assessment of the 332nd's combat record has been verified by Daniel Haulman of the Air Force Historical Research Agency at Maxwell AFB. Haulman also reviewed combat reports from unit archives and reached the same conclusion: some bombers escorted by the Tuskegee Airmen were lost to enemy fire.

Reaction to this "discovery" has been mixed. One veteran of the 332nd, Carrol Woods of Montgomery, AL, described the claims as "outrageous." Mr. Woods, who flew more than 100 missions as a fighter pilot and spent seven months in a POW camp after being shot down, is incensed by the historians' contentions. "I think they're trying to destroy our record. What's the point now?"

Holton, who is black, and Haulman, who is white, say their only interest is ensuring the accuracy of the historical record.

In response to the historians' findings, the President of the Tuskegee Airmen, retired Lieutenant General Russell Davis, says he will drop references to "no losses" in his speeches until the matter can be clarified. "We've got some homework to do, obviously." Davis also indicated that more researchers may look at available records, to determine if the reported losses occurred while the 332nd escorted the bombers, or after escort duties were handed over to other fighter units. Haulman also believes that the records of bomber units need to be scrutinized, to provide a more accurate estimate on the number of bombers shot down while under escort by the 332nd.

Both Holton and Haulman emphasize that they are not attempting to denigrate the combat record of the Tuskegee Airmen. Indeed, as Mr. Haulman has written:

"The Tuskegee Airmen proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that African-Americans were capable of flying the best of the Allied fighters to victory against the best of the enemy fighters...They earned an indelible place in the history not only of their service, but also in the history of their country and of the world."

Legends often die hard, and Holton and Haulman deserve credit for taking on such a controversial military subject, and publishing new information to update the historical record. As for those bomber losses, Professor Alan Gropman of the National Defense University summed it up well, saying that "Even if they lost three or four bombers [to enemy fighters], it would be miniscule compared to the losses incurred by white pilots who also escorted the bombers."

The need for additional research is obvious. Reports cited by Holman and Haulman sound like the World War II equivalent of mission reports (MISREPs), filed by aircrew members after returning from a combat flight. While these reports often provide important information, they are also subject to potential inaccuracies, relating to the debriefing and writing skills of the intelligence personnel (who actually prepare the reports), and the memories of the crew themselves, who are often asked to recount specific details of long and arduous combat missions. The accounts reviewed by Holman and Haulman were based on the memories of 332nd pilots, who had just returned from grueling escort missions over Europe. While I have no reason to doubt their accuracy, they provide only one side of the story.

Having been on "both sides" of the debriefing process (as an aircrew member and an intel specialist), I was often amazed at the level of recall, yet also keenly aware that even important details are sometimes forgotten, or reported inaccurately. That's why a wider review of mission summaries from escorted bomber units, as well as Luftwaffe archives, is required. Comparing information from multiple sources will provide a better idea of how many bombers were actually lost during escort missions performed by the 332nd.

Whatever that "final" number may be, it will not lessen the achievements of the Tuskegee Airmen, who overcame the barriers of racism and discrimination to serve their nation with such distinction during World War II--and beyond.


As for the "no losses" claim, historians believe it may have originated in a wartime commendation for Colonel Davis, written by his commander, Colonel Buck Taylor. Davis later repeated the claim in his autobiography--and it has been used in numerous references to the Tuskegee Airmen. But the source of Taylor's information is unknown, and copies of the commendation letter no longer exist.


ShrinkWrapped said...

My father was a tail gunner on B-24's flying out of North Africa in WWII. He always maintained that the Tuskegee Airmen never lost a bomber; he firmly believed it at the time and believes it to this day. Whether it was strictly accurate or some version of hyperbole, the bomber crews were comforted by their presence and felt safer when they saw them flying alongside. (I wrote about them last year: http://shrinkwrapped.blogs.com/blog/2005/10/race_and_the_un_1.html)

Unknown said...

I've heard the same stories from other vets, and my post is in no way meant to denigrate their service. To a man, the Tuskegee Airmen felt they had something to prove, both to the enemy, and to their countrymen. Their valor, service and sacrifice is without question. I think the final analysis will show that the "Redtails" lost far fewer bombers to enemy fighters than other P-47 and P-51 units.

My best wishes to your father for his service during WWII. Most Americans don't realize that a bomber crew member had only a 1 in 3 shot of completing their combat tour without being killed, wounded or captured. And, as you probably know, tail gunner was one of the loneliest (and most important) positions on a B-17 or B-24.

ShrinkWrapped said...

My father went over with ~300 other airmen (army air corps); 7 came home.

Unknown said...

I know someone whose father was with the 15th air force and he had said that most of the Tuskegee men were cowards who stuck close to bomber formations for protection. White fighter pilots flew miles ahead and attacked German air bases. Cowardice like this, well, its no wonder they suffered few losses!

Dell_User said...

Pot, your claim as well as these so called new historians is nothing but pure BS. I've seen it all before, wait til the majority of folks that were there die, then make-up the story that you want to tell. Dead men tell no tales. The Tuskegee Airmen kill ratios firmly disproves what you are saying.

Notice that if the claim was false, the Military as racist as they were in those days would have shut the claim down faster than you could blink. This is the same racism that crops up all the time.

When you fly escort, you're not attacking airfields. What a crock of BS to think that flying close to a bomber during a dog fight will make you "safer." In fact, it has a higher hazard ratio as compared to CAP missions. I don't know a pilot that lives that would want those gunners shooting beneath their bellies. No other squadron in WWII had escort records that were better. In fact, the black pilots would have had even higher kill rates if the Airforce didn't restrict their missions. The truth of the matter is, they gave them what you'd call today suicide missions. Flying that deep into Germany with limited fuel, 88s firing at you, Bomber gunners flinging Machine Gun fire beneath/all around you, and German planes trying to kill you all while preventing them from attacking the bombers and your wing is nothing short of Hazard duty. Imagine not only having to protect each wing but having to worry about bombers too? They would've knocked the socks off the Germans if Ops Command would have given them CAP missions. The military could not have lived with having black Aces those days so they restricted them.

I repeat, they had to worry about enemy Flak, enemy Jets, Enemy propeller driven fighters, the friendly gunners firing all around them all while protecting the bombers, themselves and their wing. The Tuskegee Airmen, had triple the workload and still came out on top. No ones going for this crap of changing reports to discredit blacks anymore. And they always try and find one token black to take down and discredit truths of another black. Face it, the Tuskegee Airmen are: Great American Men.