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.