ALPHARETTA, Ga. – The flying Red Tails of World War II paid a visit to North Fulton May 29, nearly 70 years after they fought.
“Red Tails” was a name for the men and women commonly called the “Tuskegee Airmen,” the first all-black American aviators. Beyond the fighter pilots, they were made up of men and women in the ground crew in maintenance, nurses and support staff. White trainers and support staff are also considered a part of the Airmen. They got their name from the distinctive red painting on the fighter planes’ tails.
“Today, there are 16,000 men and women who worked on that experiment and are considered part of the Tuskegee Airmen,” said Zelly Rainy Orr, a speaker and historian for the Airmen. She said the Tuskegee “experiment” began in 1941.
“It was a program to train blacks to fly,” she said.
It was military practice at the time to prohibit African-Americans or women to fly military aircraft, despite many having civilian pilot’s licenses. The Tuskegee program was to experiment allowing blacks to fight. There were about 1,000 pilots, but less than half those actually flew.
“What made the Tuskegee Airmen great is they proved to the nation that if blacks are given the chance to compete at the same level [as white pilots]. For the first time, blacks were in a position to show they were intellectually savvy,” Rainy Orr said.
Many of the missions the Airmen flew were as support craft on bombing missions. African-Americans were prohibited from flying bombers. However, by the end of the war, the protection of the Tuskegee pilots was in high demand.
After the war, in 1949, the Air Force held a gunnery meet for all its pilots. There were 12 teams, only one of which was black.
“The Tuskegee men won the conventional class meet and had the highest score of all 12 teams. We were the first top guns,” Rainy Orr said. “We proved we were the best of the best.”
One of the few living Airmen, Norris Connally, was present for the event. Born in Atlanta in 1921, Connally was attending the all-black Morehouse College when recruiters came looking for volunteers to fly in Tuskegee.
He and 14 of his classmates signed up. The vast majority of those men were relegated to ground duty in support of the pilots. He was one of those men. He traveled to Africa and southern Europe with the squadrons, keeping the men in the air.
Connally and his fellow pilots returned to civilian duty after the war. Connally went on to become vice president of the Atlanta Life Insurance Company. Another Tuskegee Airman was the first black licensed electrician in Atlanta. He helped wire the MARTA stations when they were built. Another went on to be the surgeon monitoring John Glenn as he became the first American in space.
“Help your children do research and learn your own history,” said Connally’s daughter, Geraldine Gilliam. “It’s important.”
In a special presentation, the Tuskegee Airmen were named “outstanding citizens” by Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp. The award was presented by Roger Wise, of Kemp’s office.
The standing-room only event was held at Alpharetta City Hall and was hosted by the American Heritage Society of Georgia, a North Fulton-based group dedicated to preserving patriotism as well as an understanding of the history behind what made America great.
For more on the Tuskegee Airmen and their legacy, visit them online at tuskegeeairmen.org. For more on the American Heritage Society of Georgia, visit them at www.americanheritagesocietyofgeorgia.com. They meet every fourth Tuesday of the month.