Today, airplanes with red tails and Black pilots
change America. The University of Houston's College
of Engineering presents this series about the
machines that make our civilization run, and the
people whose ingenuity created them.
I spent fall, 1953, in basic
training. A young soldier from Georgia said to me,
"Look at this! I'm using the same water fountain
the colored soldiers use; and it doesn't bother me.
I wonder what the fuss was all about?"
The small Virginia town outside the gate lagged far
behind. After five years, the integrated Army was
running smoothly. We had more pressing things to
worry about than color -- like shiny boots and
getting five hours sleep a night.
A group called the Tuskegee Airmen had done much to
get us to that point. Black Americans have served
in our armies since the Revolutionary War. But on
the eve of WW-II we still segregated our soldiers.
We closed doors to blacks. In particular, you had
to be white if you wanted to fly.
Our myths reserve flight for heroes -- for Sinbad
and Daedalus. Icarus died because he lacked a
hero's sense of purpose. He stopped to play and
flew too near the sun. Before Pearl Harbor, that's
the kind of thing the Army still thought black
fliers would do.
But the Nazis had made racism a major theme in the
gathering war. So, under pressure from the NAACP,
the Army opened a school for black fighter pilots
in 1941. They put it at Tuskegee Institute in
Alabama. Tuskegee was already training black
civilians to fly. And it was off the beaten path.
The Army expected failure, and they wanted to keep
it out of sight.
But the program did not fail -- far from it. Fliers
came out of it burnished to a superb luster by
trainers with no intention of failing. Tuskegee
fighter pilots arrived in North Africa in 1943.
First they escorted planes behind the lines. Then
we flung them into the air war over Europe. 450
Tuskegee fliers saw combat. 66 were killed. 32 were
shot down and captured. They accounted for over 400
enemy planes, 40 boats and ships, and untold damage
on the ground. In one air battle, they shot down
three of the nearly unbeatable new German jets --
the Germans' last secret weapon.
The Tuskegee pilots painted the tails of their
fighters red. The bomber pilots they protected
called them red-tailed angels. The Germans called
them Schwarze Vogelmenschen -- Black
Birdmen. We'd begun by calling them a Noble
Experiment. But these superb pilots were no
experiment. They were Daedalus the Hero, after all.
And, three years later, we finally got the message.
We finally desegregated the Army -- and changed
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds