Fighting for the Right to Fight

Fighting to Fight 2017
Fighting to Fight 2017

The Dallas Examiner

“Despite the segregation and injustice that African Americans faced on a daily basis in our country, over 1 million African Americans enlisted in the armed forces to serve their country and to fight to preserve the very freedoms they were denied,” Mary Pat Higgins, president and CEO of the Dallas Holocaust Museum, voiced Sept. 7 as she introduced the debut program for the exhibition Fighting for the Right to Fight: African American Experiences in WWII.

Former Tuskegee Airmen Flight Officer Robert T. McDaniel and Erma Bonner-Platte, widow of Tuskegee Airmen instructor Capt. Claude R. Platte, joined Higgins for the debut.

The exhibition, on display in the museum until Jan. 26, 2018, showcases Black accomplishments and struggles during World War II, abroad and at home.

The name of the exhibition is more than poetic rhetoric, according to the evening’s moderator, UNT history professor J. Todd Moye.

“African Americans had to fight for the right to serve their country in WWII, in significant numbers and significant roles. The plan coming out of WWI, based on supposedly scientific studies … they purported to show that African Americans that served in WWI did not have leadership qualities, did not have equal intelligence to Whites, could not be expected to serve as officers, certainly could not lead White troops, etc.,” he stated.

With that concept as part of the cultural backdrop to the exhibition, the night’s discussion did not involve stories of warfare but rather battles the Airmen had to deal with that involved color.

Blacks who wanted to serve in WWII had to turn the military issue into a civil rights issue, then into a political issue, so that they could then fight through the political process, according to Moye.

From 1937 to 1941, the NAACP demanded at their annual conventions that the Army Air Corp be opened up to Black men willing to enlist. Via political maneuvering before the 1940 election, the NAACP was eventually able to get Franklin Roosevelt to comply with their wishes.

McDaniel opened up about his road to becoming what was referred to as a “Red-Tail Angel.” After he graduated from I.M. Terrell High School in 1940, he attended Prairie View A&M.

“Of course, I was drafted out of Prairie View College into the armed services, I entered the services in 1943 and I was accepted in the Air Corp.,” he explained.

“And of course, they didn’t really want Black folk flying planes because they felt, first of all, that they weren’t intelligent enough, and they didn’t have the dexterity to operate the machines and everything, as though you were different physically, simply because you were the wrong color.”

The former officer, much like his peers, saw it as nothing but bigoted nonsense. Still, rather than be trained as a bombardier at Midland Army Air Field as was originally intended, he was sent to Tuskegee, Alabama, to be trained as a flyer to escort the bomber planes with their White crews in their raids over Europe.

In contrast to the belief at the time in the inferiority of African Americans, the Airmen actually did a better job of protecting the bombers than did their White counterparts, Moye noted.

Out of 179 bomber escort missions, 27 bombers were lost under the eyes of the Red Tails. By comparison, the average loss for other escort groups was 46.

McDaniel revealed that most Black fliers trained in the South since that is where the institution of segregation would cast the largest shadow over them. At first, only White officers were in charge of the soldiers, but eventually Black military men began to be promoted to officer status, which led to conflicts on base.

For example, the War Department regulation at that time was that officers’ clubs were for officers; per Moye, even during that segregated period, there was no military distinction made between officers of different races.

However, the professor and the former Airman described trouble that arose in the 477th Bombardment Group due to traditions of racial separation, leading what is known as the Freeman Field mutiny.

“The base commander there was Col. Robert Selway,” the professor stated, causing McDaniel to cackle with laughter. Disregarding military regulations, Selway pronounced that the officers’ clubs under his command would be Whites-only, and required Black officers to sign a statement acknowledging this decree. “Black folk, in his mind, were inferior to him. I guess it was because of the color; [I] couldn’t think of any other reason,” the Airman stated sarcastically.

Black officers were regulated to an enlistedmans’ club but they refused to set foot into the space on principal, calling it “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”

On April 5 and 6, 1945, a number of Black officers at Freeman Army Air Field, Indiana, entered the White officers’ club in violation of Selway’s dictate. Eventually, 100 officers, including McDaniel, were arrested for either entering the club or refusing to sign Selway’s decree, and put in what amounted to house arrest back at Godman AAF in Kentucky where they were formerly stationed under the colonel. The flight officer related to the audience a sight he witnessed while he remained confined in quarters.

“The German prisoners of war, who were German officers, could use the officer’s club,” a statement which stirred up shock and disgust from the capacity audience. The case took a different turn once the soldiers were court-martialed.

“[Selway] lied about not allowing Blacks in the club. They court-martialed him and dismissed him from Tuskegee and brought in Bill Davis in his stead,” he said.

Charges against most of the Airmen were dropped and Col. Davis saw to it that more African American officers replaced White officers under his command. Moye brought up a comparable incident that took place in Texas.

“Some of the [Black] officers who served in Midland described a similar situation there but, instead of forcing their way into the officer’s club, they learned that they could get room service to these officers quarters – and had steaks delivered, had martinis delivered, hot fudge sundaes delivered,” the professor expressed. “Made it work for them, right?”

At one point, the professor quizzed McDaniel as to why he wanted to fight for a country that had treated those like him so poorly.

“We considered this our country, too,” the former officer answered. “Although Selway didn’t consider us full-fledged citizens, we knew we were.”

As the program neared its conclusion, McDaniel considered the experiences in his life, including his postwar career as a school principal.

“I would want young people to know that they can do anything that any other person can do, with no exceptions. Don’t let anybody turn you back.” He then added, “I’m one of the few people I know who could fly a plane before they could drive a car.”

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