LEARNING GUIDE TO:
THE TUSKEGEE AIRMEN
One of the Best! This movie is on TWM's short list of the best movies to supplement classes in United States History, High School Level.SUBJECTS — Aviation; U.S./1941 - 1945, Diversity & Alabama;Age: 10+; MPAA Rating -- PG-13 for thematic elements and brief strong war violence; Drama; 1995; 110 minutes; Color. Available from Amazon.com.
Description: This film tells the story of WWII's "Tuskegee Airmen," the African-American 332nd Fighter Group of the Army Air Corps. While most of the specific characters and events are fictional, the film accurately portrays the struggle of black Americans in their efforts to be accepted as worthy soldiers in the racist structure of the military.
Rationale for Using the Movie: The Tuskegee Airmen shows another step on the road to full equality for African-Americans in the U.S. military. During the Civil War, black foot soldiers demonstrated that blacks could fight under the conditions of modern warfare; they made a substantial contribution to the Union war effort. In 1948 President Truman ordered the complete integration of the armed forces. The film will enable students to see the significance of President George Bush's 1989 selection of General Colin Powell as the first African-American Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the highest military post in the United States.
Objectives/Student Outcomes Using this Learning Guide: Assignments at the end of the guide will enable students to become familiar with,research and write about the many issues of historical value presented in this film.
Possible Problems: Moderate. This film has the violence that films about war require, not graphic or especially gory. There are many racial epithets used against the heroes of the film. There is one suicide, shown as a terrible waste .
LEARNING GUIDE MENU
SUGGESTIONS FOR USING TUSKEGEE AIRMEN IN THE CLASSROOM
Film Preparation Worksheet with Questions for Students
Throughout the Second World War, the black community in the United States clamored for an opportunity to make a full contribution to the war effort. Before and during the early part of the war, the Navy restricted black sailors to the role of messmen, menial laborers, and servants for officers. During WWII black sailors sought the right to advance to other jobs, including combat positions. Black soldiers in the army asked to fight and to fly airplanes, rather than serve in simply support roles.
Despite the fact that black pilots had been flying planes for decades, many in the Army, the government, and much of the public didn't think blacks could become competent pilots. The struggle to give wings to black pilots in the military was led by newspapers serving the black community and organizations such as the NAACP. There was at least one lawsuit by a soldier seeking to be an army pilot.
Question 1: Speculate on the reasons that may have been at play in the minds of the individuals who held beliefs that black soldiers could serve only serve as helpers to white soldiers or that they could not fly airplanes.
Eleanor Roosevelt, First Lady of the United States, played a pivotal role in helping the 99th to get airborne. Because President Roosevelt was paralyzed, he had trained Mrs. Roosevelt to conduct fact finding missions on his behalf and to report her findings back to him. Mrs. Roosevelt was also a political power in her own right. She wrote a popular daily newspaper column and did not hesitate to bring political pressure to bear on government officials on issues that were important to her. Eleanor Roosevelt was the first leading white public figure to actively support the aspirations of black Americans. Repeatedly throughout the war, and despite vilification heaped on her by racists, Mrs. Roosevelt pushed for better jobs and improved treatment for blacks in the defense industry and in the military. The Tuskegee Airmen were one focus of her efforts.
Mrs. Roosevelt knew how to muster public opinion. Her actions indicate that she set out to change the perception that blacks couldn't fly planes and to overcome resistance by those in the Army and the government who didn't want blacks to be military pilots. The official purpose of Mrs. Roosevelt's visit to the Tuskegee airfield was to evaluate the potential of Tuskegee's facilities and to meet black flyers. She arrived at the Tuskegee airstrip with an entourage of Secret Service men and at least one photographer. During the course of her visit, Mrs. Roosevelt asked Chief Anderson, a black flight instructor and an experienced pilot, "Can Negroes really fly airplanes?" His reply was, "Certainly we can; as a matter of fact, would you like to take an airplane ride?" Mrs. Roosevelt accepted. The Secret Service men forbade her to fly. Mrs. Roosevelt overruled them and proceeded toward the aircraft. The Secret Service men rushed into a nearby office and called President Roosevelt. After hearing the details of the situation, the President replied, "Well, if she wants to do it, there's nothing we can do to stop her."
With Mrs. Roosevelt in the back seat of his Piper J-3 Cub, Chief Anderson took a half-hour ride above the Alabama countryside. Upon landing, Mrs. Roosevelt turned to the Chief and said, "I guess Negroes can fly." An historic photo was taken and was widely publicized. The photograph and Mrs. Roosevelt's willingness to trust her life to a black pilot went a long way toward convincing the public that blacks could safely fly military airplanes and gave the program to train black fighter pilots a tremendous boost.
Eleanor Roosevelt did not limit herself to publicity in her efforts to get the 99th into combat. In March of 1943, Frederick Patterson, longtime President of Tuskegee Institute, wrote to her stating: "The program of preflight training is going forward but morale is disturbed by the fact that the 99th Pursuit Squadron trained for more than a year is still at Tuskegee and virtually idle." On April 10 Mrs. Roosevelt sent a copy of Patterson's letter to the Secretary of War with a cover note stating: "This seems to me a really crucial situation." Five days later, on April 15, the Tuskegee Airmen boarded a ship bound for North Africa. The airmen and the black community were jubilant. Franklin Roosevelt generally shared his wife's desires to see improved job opportunities and treatment for black Americans and he often worked through her on controversial issues. Other preliminary steps were being taken by the War Department at this time to end racial segregation. For example, on March 1, 1943, the War Department forbade designation of recreational facilities for particular races.
Question 2: As a woman, Eleanor Roosevelt may have been more aware of second class status in American society. Write a paragraph about whether you believe this notion of empathy is justifiable.
It did not take long for the Tuskegee Airmen, who began as the African American 99th Fighter Squadron, to expand into the 332 Fighter Group and to earn a reputation as an elite fighting unit beg. The Airmen flew more than 700 missions and were the only Fighter Group that never lost a bomber to enemy aircraft. They earned three unit citations, more than 744 Air Medals and Clusters, more than 100 Distinguished Flying Crosses, 14 Bronze Stars, 8 Purple Hearts, a Silver Star, and a Legion of Merit and the Red Star of Yugoslavia. The Tuskegee Airmen downed 111 enemy fighters, including three of the eight Messerschmitt ME-262 jets shot down by the Allies during the war. The 332nd also destroyed countless targets during ground attack missions and even sunk a German destroyer with machine gun fire that hit the ship's ammunition stores triggering secondary explosions. Sixty-six Tuskegee Airmen, out of a total of 450 sent overseas, lost their lives in combat.
The pilots of the 332nd wanted to make sure that Allied bomber crews and enemy pilots could easily identify them. As a result they had the tails of their P-51 Mustangs painted red. When it became apparent that bombers escorted by the 332nd were going to be protected from enemy fighters, the bomber crews started calling them the "Red Tail Angels".
The support personnel for the 332nd consisted of black mechanics, medical technicians, administrative support and cooks. There were ten support personnel for every pilot.
In WWII, American pilots were not supposed to fly more than approximately 50 missions before returning home. But due to "lack of replacements" the pilots of the 332nd Fighter Group, like many other pilots, flew closer to 100 missions, doubling the chance of injury and death. Ironically, were they fortunate enough to return home, men who had served in the most successful fighter squadron fielded by the United States found themselves shuttled back into "Colored Only" lines and denied access to "White Only" facilities. This is one of many ironies that fueled the Civil Rights Movement that came close on the heels of World War 11.
More ironies can be found in the life story of Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., the first black American to become a General in the United States Air Force. His father had been the first black Brigadier General in the U.S. Army. When Davis attended West Point he was "silenced" for the four years until graduation, i.e., his fellow cadets would not talk to him because he was black. Despite this treatment, Davis graduated 35th in his class of 276 cadets and was commissioned a second lieutenant in 1936. When he graduated he requested Air Corps pilot training but was turned down. When the 99th Fighter Squadron was being trained at Tuskegee, Davis' request was granted. He trained with the men and was placed in command of the squadron when it was deployed.
Davis gained respect when he took vigorous action to protest a report circulating in the military that asserted that the black pilots "lacked discipline and motivation in the air." This report, called "the Momyer Report," was based on false and misleading descriptions of the record of the black fighter pilots. It was endorsed by the Commander of the Army Air Corps and reached the desk of the Assistant Secretary of War. It was also leaked to the press and resulted in an inaccurate and damaging story appearing in Time magazine. Davis, at that time a Lieutenant Colonel, was called to testify before a committee established by the War Department to evaluate the performance of black soldiers. One of the incidents in the report, mischaracterized as demonstrating cowardice by a black fighter pilot, is shown in the film when Roberts breaks formation to go after a German fighter. Ultimately, the report fell out of favor as the Airmen earned respect and honor for their contributions to the success of the U.S. in its struggle against fascism in World War II.
Question 3: What in mass media or in your personal experience can you find that is equivalent to the Momyer report in efforts to discredit the participation of black Americans, President Obama included, in powerful positions in American society.
After the film has been watched, engage the class in a discussion about the movie.
1. The first black fighter pilots were held to a higher standard than white fighter pilots, an attitude often seen when newcomers move into an established system. Can you think of another situation in which this occurred, either in film, mass media or your own life? Speculate on the reasons for this challenging attitude. Suggested Response: Answers will vary. This is a two part question that may bring up situations in friendship circles or even classrooms or teams at school. An historical example can be found in the efforts to integrate schools in the south in the 1950s and 1960s where black children were often carefully selected by their communities to be smart and tough enough to succeed in challenging circumstances.
2. Most of the characters in Tuskegee Airmen are fictional yet the story is still true. What elements of character can you see in the film justify fantasy to teach fact? Suggested Response: All answers that are well reasoned are acceptable. Teachers may want to remind students of the story about "The Little Boy Who Cried Wolf." There may never have been such a prankster trying to trick the farmers for his entertainment, but nonetheless the theme of the tale is essential to the development of character.
3. How can you account for the fact that the Tuskegee Airmen were not treated as heroes when they returned from war and how might this fact have influenced the budding Civil Rights Movement in the U.S.? Suggested Response: Answers will vary. Clearly, racial attitudes were a major factor in both resistance to honoring the airmen and in fomenting the push for equal rights.
For additional discussion questions, click here.
Any of the discussion questions can serve as a writing prompt. Additional assignments include:
Assignments and Assessments: 1. Create a timeline of the history of African Americans in the military beginning with the Civil War and ending with the most recent conflicts. Research facts, including numbers of soldiers, rank achieved, honors awarded and even death rates. Prepare to share your timeline with the class as a whole.
2. Through Internet research, seek out the names of black soldiers who have been awarded medals years after their participation in warfare. Write brief biographies of these individuals and be sure to include what became of each soldier in the aftermath of his service.
3. Research early participation in the Civil Rights Movement and determine how U.S. engagement in war, from WWII to Korea and Vietnam, may have influenced individuals to push through the resistance to social change in terms of race.
See additional Assignments for use with any Film that is a Work of Fiction.
Click here for TWM's lesson plans to introduce cinematic and theatrical technique.
Last updated July 21, 2011.
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