The Veterans of Foreign Wars devoted its January 2003 issue of the magazine to the question “Heroism: Are war heroes out of style?”
The commander-in-chief, Raymond S. Sisk, in his editorial, commented that “If ever a word was abused, it is hero. The news media’s inappropriate application of the term has left Americans dulled. Many citizens are now incapable of defining … courage.”
Sisk cites a definition of heroism by George Bryjak, a University of San Diego sociology professor, who maintains that “Heroism is altruistic behavior performed from a strong sense of love, duty and commitment, and often entails placing oneself in life-threatening situations.”
And Sisk asks, “Who better exemplifies a classic hero than one who actively risks loss of limb or life in pursuit of a worthy cause on the battlefield?” Presidential candidate Ron Paul has called into question what he calls unwinnable and undeclared wars. In this context, when the national interest is not clearly defined in the minds of the population, popular military heroes might be difficult to find.
Not so in World War II, and not so for the Tuskegee Airmen, once again being recognized and celebrated for their old-fashioned heroism in the George Lucas-produced film, “Red Tails.” In 2005, when Lucas announced his intention to produce a film about the Tuskegee Airmen, he said, “They were the only escort fighters during the war that never lost a bomber so they were, like, the best.”
The Tuskegee Airmen comprised an all-black squadron formed in 1942 when the United States still had a legally enforced system of racial apartheid. They were bivouacked and trained at separate bases and eventually flew in separate units. Nonetheless, their achievements put them among an elite corps of fighter pilots.
About 100 pilots flew 15,000 missions during World War II. They reportedly shot down 150 enemy planes, destroyed 250 more and, as Lucas points out, successfully prosecuted their responsibility for protecting bombers by not losing a single bomber.
The Tuskegee Airmen’s heroic saga is all the more impressive when we recognize, as is depicted in the film, that they were engaged in two wars on two fronts: They were fighting to save democracy from being overrun by fascism in Europe, while at the same time fighting to establish democracy in the United States, the nation whose uniform they wore, and on whose behalf they risked the lives. Theirs was a war of epic proportions. But then, the history of African-Americans, writ large, can be seen as one epic battle.
“Red Tails” is not the first film about the Tennessee Airmen. A 1945 film “Wings for This Man” was produced by the First Motion Picture Unit of the Army and narrated by Ronald Reagan. In 1996, HBO produced “The Tuskegee Airmen,” starring Laurence Fishburne. But theirs is a story worth telling over and over, like a Greek saga that became part of oral history.
And fortunately, many of these heroes are still alive. In fact, one of them, George Porter, visited UC Davis earlier this month. And the late Robert Matthews, a professor in UCD’s geology department, was a Tuskegee Airman. Porter is one of the remaining members of the 24,000 who were in flight support, keeping the pilots flying by provisioning them and keeping the planes repaired and maintained.
African-Americans have played prominent, sometimes decisive roles, in the United States’ various wars. “Glory,” (1989) starring Denzel Washington, told the story of the Union Army’s 54th Regiment, composed of African-American volunteers. The 54th played a prominent role in the Civil War.
A PBS documentary, “For Love of Liberty,” (2010) portrayed the dedication and service of African-American men and women in the U.S. military. There has not been one war that has engaged the United States that did not include the service of African-Americans.
More than 125,000 African-Americans served overseas in World War II and, apart from the Tuskegee Airmen, included other famous units such as the 761st Tank Battalion. Doris Miller, a Navy mess attendant, despite having no training in weaponry, voluntarily took over an anti-aircraft gun and fired at Japanese aircraft during the attack on Pearl Harbor. He became the first African-American to receive the Navy Cross.
In 1944, The Golden Thirteen became the Navy’s first commissioned officers. Samuel L. Gravely Jr., who became a commissioned officer that year, later would become the first African-American to command a U.S. warship and the first to be named admiral.
Benjamin O. Davis Jr. served as commander of the Tuskegee Airmen. He later became the first African-American general in the U.S. Air Force. In many African-American families, military service was a family tradition: Benjamin O. Davis Sr. had been promoted, too, and became the first African-American brigadier general in the U.S. Army in 1940. Apartheid in the military was abolished by President Truman in 1948.
In earlier generations, military service was not as isolated from mainstream American culture. Time magazine’s cover story for its Nov. 21 edition, “An Army Apart,” calls attention to the increasing alienation of our military from Americans — “45,000 troops are coming home to a country that doesn’t know them.”
In a sense, that’s how it was for African-American servicemen and women at the end of World War II. Through films such as “Red Tails,” it may be that, finally, Americans may get to know these genuine, old-fashioned heroes. Moreover, as we would expect from the producer of “Star Wars,” the scenes of aerial combat are dazzling.
— Desmond Jolly, a longtime Davis resident, is an agricultural economist emeritus at UC Davis.