With World War II looming, the first African-American pilots are admitted into the U.S. Armed Forces. Fighter pilots Robert Friend and William Holloman fly their North American P-51 Mustangs as they bravely escort bomber planes across enemy lines while still facing social injustice in the military and at home. "Chronicles of Courage: Stories of Wartime and Innovation" is a co-production of Vulcan Productions and NBC Learn.
Chronicles of Courage -- Tuskegee Airmen
KATE SNOW, reporting:
Allied forces are rapidly advancing against Nazi Germany from all sides. American and British bomber aircraft streak through the skies, determined to decimate the remaining industries fueling Hitler's war machine. Many of these strategic bombing raids are escorted by a valiant group of African-American fighter pilots. These World War II heroes quickly earn a reputation for fierce fighting in dangerous conditions and tenacious defense of the bomber aircraft in their care.
WILLIAM HOLLOMAN III (Pilot, U.S. Army Air Forces): Our job in the 15th Air Force was to protect our bombers. We would protect them against enemy fighters.
ROBERT FRIEND (Pilot, U.S. Army Air Forces): The thing was, get those bombers home. I don't care what else. Get the bombers home.
SNOW: Dedicated fighter pilots William Holloman and Robert Friend belong to the 332nd Fighter Group, known as the 'Red Tails' because of the distinctive red paint on the tails of their airplanes.
FRIEND: That was so that the bombers wouldn't have to call and say 'who are you' or what. He could look out and say 'oh, that's the 332nd' because they had the red tails.
SNOW: The men of the 332nd are among the first African-American pilots admitted into the United States Armed Forces.
DR. ERIC SHEPPARD (Aerospace Engineer, Hampton University): Prior to their existence, there was a feeling that African-Americans weren't capable of flying aircraft under combat conditions.
SNOW: At the time, many places and organizations in the United States, including the military, deny people of color the same rights and opportunities given to white people.
HOLLOMAN: I didn't like people telling me what I couldn't do. They didn't want me? They were going to accept me. We were determined.
SNOW: In June, 1941, the U.S. Army Air Corps begins training black pilots here, at the new Tuskegee Army Air Field, a racially segregated military facility in Alabama.
FRIEND: When you sign in with the recruiter, if you didn't say you were white, you went to Tuskegee.
SNOW: After their training at Tuskegee, Holloman, Friend, and other airmen of the 332nd eventually are stationed in Italy, at Ramitelli Airfield - a captured enemy base now used by the United States.
SHEPPARD: When they moved to Italy in Ramitelli, that's when, eventually, they picked up their assignment that they're best known for, which is bomber support.
SNOW: For the long bomber escort missions against Germany, the Allies need a fighter plane with long-range capabilities. There is one clear winner - the North American P-51 Mustang. A fighter plane with high power and maneuverability in combat, the P-51 can fly hundreds of miles farther than other Allied fighters.
FRIEND: The P-51 had much more range. When we were flying the P-51, the missions were lasting like seven hours.
SNOW: The Allies need the P-51s to go deep into Germany, and to accomplish this, engineers utilize an innovative external fuel tank that attaches under the wings, nearly doubling the available fuel.
NEWSREEL: America, land of abundance, learns to mobilize its waste, to save its scrap, to provide more metals for war.
SNOW: Wartime metal shortages inspire engineers to create these tanks using a waterproof chemical compound of paper and glue. The glue-infused paper is shaped over forms, assembled, and coated with a fuel-resistant lacquer and aluminum paint to make them sturdy, yet disposable. When the fuel is used up, pilots can drop the empty tanks, improving the plane's aerodynamics. These resourceful drop tanks allow Holloman, Friend and the other P-51 pilots to gain as many as 900 additional miles of flight - more than enough for their missions across Europe.
The P-51 really was the only American fighter that was able to fly with the U.S. bombers all the way to Berlin for the missions that really hit at the heart of Germany.
SNOW: The Red Tails bravely fly nearly 1500 missions, most in the P-51s. They protect bombers with such heroism and gallantry that they're given the Distinguished Unit Citation. But even with such honors, they still face social injustices in the military and at home.
HOLLOMAN: I think that in some ways, segregation, racism made us a stronger group. We realized we were trying to prove something - that we could do the job, and we were committed to that.
SNOW: Later known as the Tuskegee Airmen, these courageous African-American pilots break down stereotypes and pave the way for racial integration in the United States military, and their victories in the skies over Europe help bring an end to Hitler's power.
FRIEND: I'm proud of myself at being there and proud of all the fellas that I served with.
Bessie Coleman was the first African-American female to become a licensed pilot, in 1921. Defeating gender and racial prejudice, the then 29-year-old became a symbol for millions of women of color at a time when African-Americans were still battling segregation and fighting for equal rights across the country.
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