Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Black History Month in the US Military:

February is Black History Month in America, and the US military has a few resources to honour and recognise the important contributions of the many African Americans who have served.

Black History Month actually started as Negro History Week in 1926 by Carter G. Woodson. The goal of Black History Week was to educate the American people about African-Americans' cultural backgrounds and reputable achievements. All these years later, there is still (sometimes acrimonious) debate as to whether we need a month set aside to remember the struggles of African Americans to be integrated into the mainstream military society.

Be that as it may, it is undeniable that African Americans have always served honourably in the US military, and has a section devoted to first person accounts of those patriotic Americans who determined to serve in uniform. One interesting historical perspective:

Ghosts of Our Past

By MST1 Chris Kimrey, U.S. Coast Guard
Marine Safety Unit Lake Charles

Throughout history, the United States has seen its share of battles. Most were waged on foreign shores, and some, here at home. The battle of segregation and racism, however, is alive today as it was forty years ago, as it was one hundred years before that. Recently, I had the opportunity to hear a recording of the speech of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963. The day would become legendary; the man, a symbol of freedom and the price paid, and the words of Rev. King's speech would resonate through history:


On the steps of the Lincoln memorial, Rev. King spoke of an "inextricably bound freedom." That freedom was demonstrated one hundred years prior as a result of President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. The signing of the Proclamation paved the way for the 54th infantry, which was formed out of Massachusetts by Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, and consisted of an all-Negro contingent, a first of its kind, which included as recruits the sons of Abolitionist Frederick Douglass. Although it was said by many that blacks wouldn't fight, black soldiers went on to be awarded sixteen Medals of Honor by the end of the Civil War, including the first Medal of Honor to be awarded an African American, William H. Carney of the 54th Infantry. His response to his actions in battle: "I was just doing my duty." His duty spoke volumes to blacks and whites alike. Young black men continued for the next hundred years to exemplify themselves in battle as demonstrated by the Buffalo Soldiers, and the Tuskegee Airmen of World War II. Although blacks have fought alongside whites throughout history in every U.S. war, the fight for integration lasted for over 100 years, and on some levels, still continues today. ...


The soldiers who gave their lives for the freedom we as Americans enjoy today, undoubtedly saw no color on the battlefield. Their ghosts live on in our great memorials on the Mall in Washington. There is no color to the Vietnam Memorial, or to the WWII Memorial. No color adorns the soldiers of the Korean War memorial or the memorial of Iwo Jima. These ghosts saw only the soldiers they fought with, and heard only the common call of duty....

And so it still is today. Read the rest of this great piece on here. On that site, you will also find profiles of inspirational heroes of the American military. Men like General Daniel "Chappie" James Jr, the first African American to be a General. Brig. Gen. Benjamin O. Davis Sr.
Brig. Gen. Benjamin O. Davis Sr.Brig. Gen. Benjamin O. Davis Sr.
Brigadier General Benjamin O. Davis Senior, was another trailblazer. Born in 1877, BG Davis led the way for what is today 10,000+ African American officers.

Rear Admiral Lillian Fishburne blazed the way for not just African Americans, but also women. To read the story of her rise through the ranks, is to be inspired.

Lt. Col Harriet West Waddy is another hero who overcame many obstacles in her zeal to serve her country:

First Officer Harriet M. West, as she was then known, was criticized for remaining in uniform while her sister soldiers suffered. In a 1943 radio broadcast, Waddy addressed her detractors, saying that joining a segregated military "which does not represent an ideal of democracy" was not "a retreat from our fight" but a contribution to realizing the ideal....

Go read the rest of her determination, her tenacity, here.

here you can find the recorded histories of Americans who were determined to demand equal roles in service to their country. Go read them all, and meet some true American heroes.

Back in 2007, I wrote a column - at Tanker Bros blog - on the occasion of President George W. Bush belatedly honouring Tuskegee Airmen. Because I know that TB is now inaccessible without
a password, I am taking the liberty of re-posting it here, in its entirety, because it IS an important story:

Thursday, May 03, 2007

GOOD NEWS FRIDAY (B*N*S*N) Tuskegee Airmen Honoured - finally!

Last month, in a special ceremony at the US Capitol, , members of the Tuskegee Airman were given the Congressional Gold medal. At this ceremony, President Bush told these heroes (in part):

“I would like to offer a gesture to help atone for all the unreturned salutes
and unforgivable indignities."

If it was just unreturned salutes these brave servicemen had suffered, this would be nothing new, but for the Tuskegee Airmen, the unforgivable indignities were far worse. So who are the Tuskegee Airmen?

The Tuskegee Airmen were dedicated, determined young men who enlisted to become America's first black military airmen, at a time when there were many people who thought that black men lacked intelligence, skill, courage and patriotism. They came from every section of the country,...Most were college graduates or undergraduates. Others demonstrated their academic qualifications through comprehensive entrance examinations.

No standards were lowered for the pilots or any of the others who trained in operations, meteorology, intelligence, engineering, medicine or any of the other officer fields. Enlisted members were trained to be aircraft and engine mechanics, armament specialists, radio repairmen, parachute riggers, control tower operators, policemen, administrative clerks and all of the other skills necessary to fully function as an Army Air Corps flying squadron or ground support unit. [source]

Four hundred and fifty of the pilots who were trained at TAAF served
overseas in either the 99th Pursuit Squadron (later the 99th Fighter
Squadron) or the 332nd Fighter Group. The 99th Fighter Squadron
trained in and flew P-40 Warhawk aircraft in combat in North Africa,
Sicily and Italy from April 1943 until July 1944 when they were transferred
to the 332nd Fighter Group in the 15th Air Force.

A highly qualified and accomplished group, these Airmen were the targets of discrimination, based ONLY on the fact that they were black African Americans. In particular, those airmen who did not go overseas, and who trained as Bombers in Selfridge Field, Michigan, were denied access to the base officers' club, in direct contravention of the Army regulations. The group was moved to Godman Field, Kentucky where unfair treatment and outright hostility continued. In 1945 the group was then moved to Freeman Field, Indiana where the racial discrimination finally erupted.

When black officers tried to enter the Freeman Field Officers' Club, against direct orders for them to stay out, one hundred and three officers were arrested, charged with insubordination and ordered to face court martial.

The court martial proceedings were quickly dropped against one hundred of the officers; two officers eventually had their charges dropped and one officer, Lt. Roger "Bill" Terry, was convicted. Fifty years later, on August 12, 1995, at the Tuskegee Airmen National Convention in Atlanta, Georgia, fifteen of the original one hundred and three officers that were arrested received official notification that their military records had been purged of any reference to the Freeman Field incident. Also, Mr. Terry's court martial conviction had been reversed and his military record cleared. The remaining officers received instructions for clearing their records. [source]

In 1945 when WW2 was over, the Airmen were still subjected to racism and bigotry upon their return to the US. This despite their outstanding service. Because of segregation, those who elected to remain in the service found their options limited. Even as the white units found themselves woefully understaffed, and in desperate need of qualified people, the Tuskegee Airmen were restricted to

...the 332nd Fighter Group or the 477th Composite Group, and later to the 332nd Fighter Wing at Lockbourne Air Base, Ohio. Opportunities for advancement and promotion were very limited and this affected morale. Nevertheless, black airmen continued to perform superbly. In 1949, pilots from the 332nd Fighter Group took first place in the Air Force National Fighter Gunnery Meet at Las Vegas Air Force Base, Nevada.

It was 1948 before President Truman enacted Executive Order Number 9981. This order directed that equality of treatment and opportunity for all be enforced. Only then did integration begin. It is suggested that it is only after the success of this integration within the military, did racial desegration start to be accepted within the larger society in America.

And so it is that six decades on these brave Airmen are being recognised for their service. Who are these individual Airmen? You can find thumbnail sketches over at the RedTail project here. This project is determined to make sure that these men's history is never forgetton, and that their service will ALWAYS be honoured. On their 'front' page they say this:

The Tuskegee Airmen were the first African Americans to be trained as WWII Military pilots in the U.S. Army Air Corps. This was a time when being black was more of a crime then being the enemy. Never in our nations' history has the idea of enemy lines been so blurred or has patriotism been so clearly defined. The Tuskegee Airmen challenged America's racist attitudes with the willingness to give their lives to a country not willing to serve them.

And so it is that on March 29, 2007, the remaining Tuskegee Airmen and their families were at the US Capitol.“It’s never too late for your country to say that you’ve done a great job for us,” Ret. Col. Elmer D. Jones, 89, of Arlington, Va., said in an interview this week. Jones was a maintenance officer during the war.........

Ret. Lt. Col. Walter L. McCreary, who was shot from the sky during a mission in October 1944 and held prisoner for nine months in Germany, said it hurt that the group’s accomplishments had not been honored years earlier.

“We took it in stride. It’s a recognition long overdue,” said McCreary, also 89, of Burke, Va.

President Bush greets Tuskegee Airmen Dr. Roscoe Brown, center, and Lt. Col. Alexander Jefferson, left, on Thursday in the Capitol Rotunda in Washington, during the Congressional Gold Medal Ceremony for the Tuskegee Airmen. [photo: Susan Walsh AP]

As the Tuskegee Airmen site says:

"The outstanding record of black airmen in World War II was accomplished by men whose names will forever live in hallowed memory. Each one accepted the challenge, proudly displayed his skill and determination while suppressing internal rage from humiliation and indignation caused by frequent experiences of racism and bigotry, at home and overseas. These airmen fought two wars - one against a military force overseas and the other against racism at home and abroad.

President George W. Bush salutes members of the Tuskegee Airmen during ceremonies at the U.S. Capitol Thursday, March 29, 2007, honoring America’s first African-American military airmen with the Congressional Gold Medal. The President told the men, “I would like to offer a gesture to help atone for all the unreturned salutes and unforgivable indignities. And so, on behalf of the office I hold, and a country that honors you, I salute you for the service to the United States of America.” [source]

"The Tuskegee Airmen helped win a war, and you helped change our nation for the better. Yours is the story of the human spirit, and it ends like all great stories do -- with wisdom and lessons and hope for tomorrow. And the medal that we confer today means that we're doing a small part to ensure that your story will be told and honored for generations to come. "

- President George W. Bush
March 29, 2007
[full transcript here]

That these men served in WW2 with great honour is now formally recognised. That they had to wait over 60 years for this day is a disgrace. You can read much more on their service and their lives by going to any of the links here. Their stories should be taught in every high school in America. We need to teach our kids that any American who steps up to fight for the land they love, deserves all respect, dignity and HONOUR we have to give - no matter what colour they are on the outside. Let us ALL learn from the Tuskegee Airmens' history.


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