01.18.12

Dr. Roscoe Brown, A Real-Life Tuskegee Airman, Tells His ‘Red Tails’ Story

George Lucas’s Red Tails, opening Friday, tells the story of a group of World War II African-American fighter pilots. Dr. Roscoe Brown, 87, squadron commander of the 332nd Fighter Group, tells Marlow Stern about being a real Tuskegee Airman.

“I was born in Washington, D.C. in the 1920s and back then aviation was just getting started. When Charles Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic Ocean, he brought his plane to the Smithsonian Institution, so even though Washington, D.C. was segregated, you could go to public buildings and see the art in the museums. My parents took me to see the Spirit of St. Louis hanging from the ceiling of the Smithsonian, and that got me interested in aviation.

“During the 1930s, aviation was burgeoning and they had the air races—people like Roscoe Turner flying these planes around pylons—and many of us began to make models of these airplanes, and then we’d fly them with rubber bands. When World War II started, the black press and the black community wanted blacks to be able to fly because in 1925, the military had done a study that said that blacks didn’t have the intelligence, ability, or coordination to fly airplanes. The pressure from the NAACP and the press caused them to start an experimental group that was to be trained in Tuskegee, Alabama, and that’s why we were known as ‘The Tuskegee Airmen.’ They went to colleges and recruited the best leaders and athletes to be Tuskegee Airmen.

“When I was attending Springfield College in Springfield, Mass., my junior year, where I was valedictorian of my class, I had already earned a commission as an infantry officer when I was 18 because they had R.O.T.C. when I was in high school. I resigned my commission, signed up to be a Tuskegee Airman, did my training in Tuskegee, got my wings in 1944, did my combat training in Walterboro, South Carolina, went overseas, and I flew combat until the end of April, when the war ended.

“I come from a generation of African-Americans where we were always trying to be better. We were taught that you had to be better than whites in order to move ahead, so we were very competitive. I went to the most competitive high school in the country for blacks—Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C.—and we developed the first black federal judge. In addition to our academic work, we were very competitive athletically. I was one of the first blacks to play lacrosse; I played football and basketball so I was accustomed to competition. Practically everyone in the Tuskegee Airmen was an exceptional scholar and athlete, so the competition was really great and it helped to bond us together.

“Because magazines would talk about flying, we thought we actually knew how to fly! You go down, you go up. We got our first ride in a small plane with an instructor pilot, and then in a biplane and it was open cockpit so you got the feeling it was really like flying. Once you got into the military planes, it was a question of learning your precision—how you could make turns, land the planes. Some of us were better than others. Of the 3,000 who trained to be pilots at Tuskegee, about 1,000 of us graduated. About 650 were single-engine pilots, and the balance was bomber pilots who never got to be in combat. Of the 650 single-engine pilots, about 400 of us went overseas and flew missions from January ’44 to April ’45.

“The most difficult part is something that the movie refers to: overcoming the negative beliefs about blacks that we couldn’t do certain things. Our training was relatively fair; however, once we went into combat, initially they didn’t want us to be in the high-responsibility positions escorting the bombers. Once they realized they were losing so many bombers, they wanted as many people as possible to escort them; we were given that mission, and we did it extremely well. Then, once people began to hear about us, they said, ‘We want those guys, they’re really good!’ We were probably as good as many of the white pilots, but many of the white pilots would leave the bombers and shoot down planes to become heroes; our commander insisted that we stay with the bombers, which is why the bombers would like seeing our Red Tails flying over them.

“They have a saying that excellence is the antidote to prejudice; so, once you show you can do it, some of the barriers will come down.”

“High-altitude escort was probably the most important plane in the war and shortened the war by about six months because it enabled the bombers to go a longer distance into Germany and destroy their infrastructure—their rail hubs, oil refineries, and so on.

“As a result, we didn’t shoot down many planes, although on the longest mission of the 15th Air Force, from southern Italy to Berlin, we shot down the first jet planes in the 15th Air Force—the German Me-262—and I was the one who shot down the first of those jets. It was the first plane I’d shot down before. We used a maneuver that we’d been practicing, where when the jets were coming up, instead of going right after the jets so they could get away from us, cause they were faster, I went down under the bombers away from the jets, made a hard right turn so I could put the jet into my gun sight, and boom. It was a good maneuver because the jets were faster than we were, but we were more maneuverable.

“I had some close calls. Once, when I was shooting a train on the ground, I hit the train and knocked off half my wing but was able to fly the plane back. Another time, I was shooting a locomotive and it blew up, and some of the stuff got in my air scoop, but I managed to fly it back. My plane also took a few bullets when I was doing ground support in Greece while liberating the Athens airport.

“Everything was black or white. They wouldn’t let black officers in the white officers’ club. Someone tried to enforce segregation on the base when we moved to Walterboro, South Carolina, for our combat training. We went to the movie theater and they had a sign up that said ‘blacks in the back.’ We wouldn’t tolerate that, so we went and sat up in the front of the white section. An MP came by and said, ‘We’ll court-martial you if you don’t move.’ We said, ‘The government has spent $75,000 training us, so I don’t think they’d appreciate us being court-martialed for standing up for our citizen’s rights.’ The next day, the signs were down.

“This country was built on race, racial prejudice, and the efforts of blacks. So blacks have fought in every war going back to the Revolutionary War. Each time that we did that, we thought that if we defended the country and did it with dignity and excellence, the broader community would end segregation. After World War II, that finally happened when in 1948, President Truman signed Executive Order 9981 eliminating segregation in the armed forces. So in a sense we made that progress.

“Every step of the way, however, there’s another impediment—people’s biases and stereotypes get in the way: the first black owner of a football team; the first black owner of an NBA team; the first black to be the head of a hospital. Race is still a major factor. It’s even a major factor in the presidential election, because much of the opposition to Obama is based on his race, not just his policies. We have to keep on struggling, and when people see a movie like Red Tails, where we do overcome those obstacles and become successful, it makes people feel proud, and it makes whites and others feel they shouldn’t have done it, and it makes blacks feel that if you keep working, you can do it. They have a saying that excellence is the antidote to prejudice; so, once you show you can do it, some of the barriers will come down.”