Untold Stories of the Tuskegee Airmen

Director: Tom Rubeck Time: 51 minutes. Color/B&W.

In 2007, the surviving members of the famed Tuskegee Airmen, a group of African American aviators and ground personnel who overcame discrimination at home in order to fight for democracy abroad, were belatedly honored with the Congressional Gold Medal. This new DVD, part of the “Black History Uncovered” series, uses that tribute as the introduction to a well-paced selection of interviews with surviving airmen and family members.

The program quickly lays out the essential elements of the story. A 1925 War Department study concluded that blacks were temperamentally and biologically unsuited to become pilots. Under pressure from civil rights groups and with the powerful intervention of Eleanor Roosevelt, an “experiment” began at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama to train black pilots for the U. S. Army Air Forces—though many critics, including army brass, hoped the experiment would fail. Trainees received their initial instruction at Moton Field, with advanced training at Tuskegee Army Air Field. The all-black flying units, initially the 99th Pursuit Squadron and ultimately the 332nd Fighter Group, deployed to the Mediterranean where they compiled an enviable reputation for escorting Fifteenth Air Force bombers. Sadly, they returned not to honor but to the same Jim Crow segregation they left behind.

The heart of the video is the engaging interviews with the veterans. Now in their eighties, they look back on their experiences with pride, enthusiasm, and surprisingly little bitterness. Several speak of their appreciation for two exceptional leaders. The first of these was Lt. Col. Noel F. Parrish, the white training school commander who dealt fairly with the airmen and eliminated the “Whites Only” facilities on base. Others praise the 99th’s first commander, Col. Benjamin O. Davis Jr., who established the high standards for the unit (he threatened to court-martial any pilot who abandoned the bombers in order to seek victories) and defended its combat record before skeptical War Department bureaucrats. One of the most memorable interviewees is a Tuskegee pilot who was captured by the Germans: he wryly notes that he was treated better in a German stalag than he had been back in Mississippi. Other segments deal with the many support personnel, male and female, trained at Tuskegee (only a small fraction of the airmen were pilots) and the “Freeman Field Mutiny,” in which a group of airmen attempted to integrate the officer’s club. The veterans offer a final message to today’s youth: “When your ‘Tuskegee’ opportunity comes along, be ready for it.”

Production values on the DVD are excellent, with many outstanding contemporary photographs and film clips, although the combat footage tends to cut corners by using too many generic shots. The DVD also contains interesting extras, including a short piece on the ongoing restoration of Moton Field, which had fallen into serious disrepair by the early 1990s.


Originally published in the May 2008 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here