Their story is part of the fabric of American military history, acknowledged only after persistence by historians and their admirers relentlessly pushed the United States government to recognize their achievements.
Their bravery during some of World War II’s most critical battles has been recognized by aviators and presidents, and some believe their actions in a time of war convinced President Harry S. Truman to desegregate the military in 1948.
The story of the Tuskegee Airmen, chronicled recently in the George Lucas film “Red Tails,” is about a group of African-American pilots of the 332nd squadron who guided and guarded American pilots on bombing missions during World War II, largely in the Mediterranean Theater of Operations over Sicily, Italy and North Africa.
Edward Tillmon, 89, is a member of the Tuskegee fraternity. In a recent interview at his Santa Monica home, Tillmon clarified an important distinction about the group: not all of them were pilots, but they are all Tuskegee men, and there were well over 10,000 men in the program.
“Each and every one of them are Tuskegee Airmen,” he began. “Fellows in the navigation schools were going up against whites, and at the time there was very little training for what were then called ‘Negroes’ for pilots.
“The pilots get the credit, and they should,” Tillmon, who was trained as a bombardier and obtained the rank of second lieutenant, added. “But we were all a part of the program.”
Created in June 1941, six months before the Japanese Air Force attacked Pearl Harbor, the group of the nation’s first black pilots were sent to Italy and Sicily as a part of “Operation Torch” and later gained fame as bomber pilot escorts in Europe. The first unit consisted of approximately 47 officers and 417 enlisted men. Many of the pilots were stationed after training at Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama, and most of the applicants had been trained for over two years at the historically black Tuskegee Institute as part of the Civilian Pilot Training Program.
They were awarded numerous honors, among them a distinguished unit citation for “outstanding performance and extraordinary heroism” in 1945.
Other awards included several Distinguished Flying Crosses, Legions of Merit, Silver Stars, Purple Hearts, the Croix de Guerre, and the Red Star of Yugoslavia.
Tillmon, who became a commercial banker after the war, was drafted in 1943 during his third year in college and sent to basic training, and like many black soldiers of his time, was sent to the infantry. “After the three months of basic training, I decided that I did not want to be in the infantry,” he recalled with a smile.
Upon hearing about the Tuskegee pilots, Tillmon took and passed tests for navigation, bombardier and pilot training. He was accepted to the aviation program but due to the era, he was convinced that he would not have a career as a pilot in the private sector after the war ended.
“I went to the company commander and told him that I did not wish to continue training as a pilot, and I’m sure that he thought I was crazy,” said the former lieutenant. “But I had made up my mind because I had three years of college and I had decided if I made it through the service, that I was going back to college to finish.
“I also told the commander that there were no airlines that were hiring blacks,” Tillmon continued. “I knew that I would not be able to get a job in the airline industry because it was completely segregated.”
Tillmon pointed out that despite the successes of the Tuskegee Airman, the first African-American commercial airline pilot was not hired until 1965. Many of the ranks of the fledging airlines after World War II were composed of pilots who had flown during the war, or military pilots who had not seen action but had been trained as aviators.
“I never regretted my decision to resign,” he said. “I wanted to control my future life.”
Tillmon, who became a member of the 477th Bombardment unit, and five of his fellow airmen took part in annual “Muscle Beach” Memorial Day festivities at Venice Beach on May 29. Event organizer Joe Wheatley, a Muscle Beach promoter, invited them so that the public could realize what they had done in service to their country.
“They had a historic role in World War II,” Wheatley said. “They were the ‘Jackie Robinsons’ of their era and they did a lot to integrate the armed forces.”
Los Angeles Councilman Bill Rosendahl, who served as a psychiatric counselor during the Vietnam War, said the Tuskegee Airmen were instrumental in setting the stage for not only desegregating the military but also for making the road easier for women, and to a lesser extent gay soldiers and sailors in later generations.
“Once one group that has been historically mistreated and discriminated against wins a significant battle for their rights, it opens the door for others,” the councilman said.
On a summer night in Indiana before the end of the war, Tillmon became part of military history in another way in what became known as “the Freeman Field Mutiny.”
It began when Tillmon and approximately 160 of his fellow African-American officers were denied admittance to an all-white officers club. They refused to sign an order from the base commander in writing that they were not to enter the club.
Some historians of the Civil Rights Movement consider the actions of the African-American officers a crucial factor in the full integration of the armed forces, as well as a template for later civil disobedience efforts to integrate public facilities such as lunch counters and schools in the South.
“It was very well orchestrated as far as the blacks were concerned, ” Tillman recalled. “One of our leaders was the future mayor of Atlanta, Coleman Young.”
“It was a situation where they just weren’t going to take it anymore,” said Simone Ginyard, Sr., the spokesman of the Los Angeles chapter of Tuskegee Airmen, Inc.
Ginyard said Tillmon, a former Los Angeles chapter president, has been his mentor since he joined the foundation. “Ed is a wonderful gentleman and he has helped me with my duties in so many ways when I came aboard,” Ginyard told The Argonaut.
The 477th Bombardier unit was slated to go to Japan when Truman decided to drop the nuclear bomb on Hiroshima, effectively ending Tillmon’s military career. Soon after the bombing of Japan, he and his fellow officers were released from duty.
Tillmon thinks their role in the “Freeman Field Mutiny” was a factor in the dissolution of the unit. “We all participated in (the mutiny),” he noted.
State Sen. Ted Lieu (D- Marina del Rey) recalls learning the story of the Tuskegee Airmen as an undergraduate student at Stanford University.
“It’s always a great honor to meet any veteran of World War II, but it was especially an honor to meet these soldiers who fought for their country so bravely when they and their families were experiencing discrimination at home,” said the senator, who is a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force Reserves. “Their service is an indication of their patriotism and the inspiration that they give is an indication that this country was founded on equality.”
As one of the last men to join the Tuskegee group, Tillmon found himself briefly in a Monroe, La. navigation unit that was not segregated because a maximum of 32 applicants were allowed.
“In 1945, the service began to discharge pilots who had been oversees. One day, three white bomber pilots came to speak to us and began talking about their experience during the bombing missions,” he said. “One of them said, ‘We did not worry very much because we were protected by the Red Tails.’
“We were so proud to hear that,” Tillmon said. “They did a magnificent job of protecting the pilots, and hearing that made our experience worth it.”
Tillmon saw “Red Tails” when it debuted earlier this year. “What I tell everyone is ‘it’s a movie,’” he responded. “The one that I think that everyone should see is ‘Double Victory.’”
“Double Victory” is a documentary by Lucas about the airmen’s fight simultaneously on two fronts.
“It talks about not only the victories overseas, but also about the victory over segregation,” Tillmon explained.
Wheatley said the Tuskegee Airmen’s impact stretches farther than the annuals of military history, a movie theater screen or the skies over 1940s Italy.
“They were a forgotten group,” he said. “Some of the people who attended the (Memorial Day event) might not be alive today but for the Red Tails protecting the pilots.
“So they didn’t just protect the pilots: they also saved future generations.”
Ginyard, who says there are 25 living airmen who belong to the local chapter, credited Wheatley for inviting the former soldiers and pilots to the Muscle Beach event. “I was very proud to work with Joe on this,” he said.
Rosendahl said he felt a sense of “camaraderie and brotherhood” when he met Tillmon and the other airmen. “They were very humble, very spiritual,” he said.
Tillmon and his fellow airmen spend a good deal of time speaking to groups of teens and young adults at schools, churches and other organizations.
“Minority kids are still not equal in this country,” he asserted. “We try to convey to them that whatever they want to do they can accomplish.
“It might not be easy, but you can accomplish it.”
The lieutenant thinks the public is beginning to understand how important the Tuskegee Airmen were and are to the nation’s history.
“It’s taken a very, very long time,” he concluded with a smile. “I don’t think that most of the fellows just want to be honored.
“We realize that we are a part of history, and for me everything, including what happened at Farmers Field, all those experiences, I take with me throughout my life.”