1 January 1939 - 7 December 1941
Document prepared for posting by Ms. Patty McGhee, Dayton, Ohio
A unique problem was placed in the hands of the Southeast Air Corps Training Center in November, 1940 with the arrival of a letter from the Office of the Chief of the Air Corps relative to the establishment of a colored pursuit squadron at Tuskegee, Alabama. The developments leading to this communication are still somewhat obscure. It is known, however, that General Weaver had been aware for some time that a negro training project was being considered. Although documentary evidence is lacking to establish the facts properly, it is the opinion of good authorities that he strongly resisted War Departments plans to train colored and white flyers together. Perhaps his motive for encouraging Dr. F. D. Patterson, president of the famous negro college, Tuskegee Institute to secure the location of colored flying activities in that vicinity, was to insure the segregation of the two races. If such was General Weaver's policy, it was attended with complete success.
Many of the details for the experimental pursuit squadron were worked out in Washington, where it had already been decided that the entire establishment should be manned by colored personnel as soon as possible. It was contemplated that only 33 pursuit pilots be trained. Because of the policy of segregation, the program could not even begin until negro enlisted mechanics were available, a situation that would not exist until 22 weeks after technical training started at Chanute Field, Illinois. General Weaver was directed to submit a plan covering the institution of this school at Tuskegee and to make recommendations concerning funds, personnel and internal organization. Finally, the OCAC letter specified test that the entire matter should be approached with the purpose of providing a setup equivalent to that furnished white trainees. (1)
From the first the colored training project was turned over to Major L. S. Smith, who submitted a plan on 6 December to the OCAC in which he called for an establishment to cost over one million dollars. There were to be four weeks of pre-flight training, after which basic and advanced phases would ensue to be followed by six weeks of tactical work. Smith estimated that 11 white officers and 15 white non-commissioned officers would be required at the outset until there were enough negroes to replace them. In view of Army Regulation 95-60, the commanding officer would necessarily be white. Considerable construction would be required because of the inadequate facilities in Tuskegee. It was noted that the Tuskegee Institute was most anxious to have this unit located in that vicinity and would secure option for the purchase of a site.(2)
Less than two weeks later, the OCAC submitted to the Adjutant General its proposals for the negro pursuit squadron.(3) These plans were based almost word for word upon the recommendations sent in by the SEACTC. Their original estimation that a total of 429 enlisted men and 47 officers would be needed, stood. Since it was impractical to undertake elementary training at once, it was proposed to enlist CAA graduates of the secondary phase as flying cadets in the basic school as soon as they had been given military training. There were already sufficient candidate on hand for basic training and more were becoming available. Finally, this proposal recommended that the Tuskegee site be selected, since the only other available site, in the Chicago area, was not suitable because of the climate.
In detail, the plan repeated Major Smith's scheme in providing for a white commander, executive officer and squadron commander, with all of the other positions filled by negroes as soon as they could be procured. The pursuit squadron should be organized in three echelons, basic training, advanced training, and air force, with 33 pilots eventually trained for the squadron itself and 12 negro instructors available as instructors. This design was actually set in operation toward the end of 1941. The progress of instruction were to be the same as those used for training white cadets. All enlisted personnel would be high school graduates.
In January 1941, a confidential telegram informed the SEACTC that the Tuskegee project had been approved and that funds would be secured as soon as possible. There was to be no publicity on this matter.(4) A few weeks later, the Adjutant General was requested by OCAC to approve a plan to recruit 420 negro soldiers, train them at Chanute Field, and send them to Tuskegee on 1 October 1941, when it was anticipated that basic flying training would begin. Advanced training was expected to be initiated on 20 December, and an annual production of 75 pilots per year was provided.(5)
In February, 1941, Major James A. Ellison of the SEACTC headquarters, soon to be the project officer for Tuskegee, attended a conference in Washington. It developed that the original plan submitted by General Weaver was going to be modified in certain respects. Moreover, the War Department asserted its intention to have one of its own boards pass on the project. The engineers were and a fraction of Tuskegee's citizens were soon raising difficulties concerning the site and another one had to be selected. Actually, it was not until 30 April that a site was approved.(6)
The plan to recruit and train Air Corps negro enlisted men at Chanute field went ahead as scheduled. Of the 459 soldiers, 276 were three-year recruits. The rest being selectees and soldiers from other branches. They were expected to be available for Tuskegee by the middle of September, and, in fact, they did arrive at that time. The men from the other branches of the Army were to come from Maxwell Field, Aberdeen, Md, Edgewood Arsenal, Md, and various replacement centers.(7)
While plans for developing the Army flying school at Tuskegee were proceeding favorably another program came into being. This was the scheme to train negro pilots at a civil flying school. On 16 January 1941, the War Department publicly announced its policy of training negroes as pilots. From the outset it was hoped by the Tuskegee Institute that its AAC program would be taken over for this purpose. There was some competition, however, with elements in Chicago who wanted the primary school established there, largely because they desired to amalgamate white and colored training. General Weaver encouraged the Tuskegee Institute to make overtures to the War Department and to Alabama congressman. The subsequent success of the Tuskegee group brought bitter attacks from the negro leaders, who objected to Tuskegee's implied approval of the policy of segregating negroes and whites.(8)
On 7 February 1941, SEACTC was formally advised of the plan to set up a primary civil contract establishment at Tuskegee on the same basis as similar flying schools. Until this organization could function, it was expected that CAA secondary course graduates would go directly into basic training. General Weaver was directed to initiate negotiations for the Tuskegee Institute and to make recommendation concerning he flow of students.(9)
Again, Major L. S. Smith was delegated the task of handling these matters. He conferred with Mr. G. L. Washington, director of aviation training at the institute, on 15 February in the presence of General Weaver, who made it emphatically clear that he wanted a safe and satisfactory air field. He held that the negro population deserved a successful experiment in flying training, the success of negro youth in the Air Corps hinged upon the fate of the Tuskegee project.(10)
The plans hatched at Maxwell Field by Major Smith and the Tuskegee officials turned out to be somewhat more ambitious than those entertained in Washington. With the expectation that training would begin 15 July 1941, and that 75 students would graduate as pilots, it was decided that 27 cadets should enter the first class at elementary. Major Smith was in favor of enrolling even more students, since the elimination rate was likely to be high.(11)
Meanwhile, in Washington, the OCAC was given verbal instructions by General Arnold to take immediate steps with regard to the elementary project. These directions were formulated in a communication to both the Adjutant General and to General Arnold, in which a contract with the Tuskegee Institute was recommended. They resemble the SEACTC plans in almost every respect. But on 11 march, the quota of beginning students was cut to the OCAC to 15, (12) and on 23 April to only 10.(13)
The problem of financing turned out to be unexpectedly complicated. Local citizens of Tuskegee were not called upon for aid. Nor did they volunteer any financial inducement.(14) Those who were not fearful of the presence of so many colored troops were piqued by the choice of the Army school site. Even though the Tuskegee Institute was successfully operating a flying school, certified by the CAA, and its president was willing to provide a separate dormitory, mess, hospital, classroom space and motor transportation, an excessive cost for this project was expected.(15) Dr. Patterson, president of the institute, was approached and was finally rebuffed by the Reconstruction Finance Corporation on the grounds that the project might not continue over a long period of time. With the SEACTC's indorsement, he turned to the Julius Rosenwald fund of Chicago.(16) In March, an annual meeting of the board of these funds was held in Tuskegee with Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt present. It was agreed there to loan the institution $200,000, provided that the Tuskegee board furnished $25,000 and agreed to amortize the entire amount as soon as possible.(17) This was done with the result that the establishment was rapidly built.
With some fanfare the elementary school at Tuskegee was opened on 19 July 1941, with an address by Major General Weaver.(18) The first commanding officer, Captain Noel F. Parrish assumed command on that day. Parrish had once dealt with negro students at the Glenview, Ill., school, where he had been commanding officer. He remained at the Tuskegee elementary detachment until 3 December 1941.
The pre-flight school went at once into operation although it actually provided little except military training the first month. On 21 August 1941, the first class, 42-C, consisting of 12 cadets and Captain Benjamin O. Davis, began its flying training. Only 6 of the original class completed primary. The high elimination rate had been attributed to the fact the negro cadets were not carefully chosen. Captain Parrish urged that the next classes be selected on a basis that indicated superior ability rather than priority of application - one that should come entirely from civil pilot training graduates.(19) His wishes were not carried out and elimination rates remained high. In fact, the pool of CAA secondary graduates available for basic training was not drawn upon for over a year, contrary to earlier expectations.(20)
Class 42-B consisted of 11 cadets, of whom four completed primary and three finished advanced. In Class 42-E there were 10 cadets, five of whom finished primary and four advanced.(21)
There were no sub-depot or quartermaster activities at the elementary school during 1941. Supplies were brought in from Montgomery by freight, with cadets traveling to Maxwell Field for their clothing. During this period, the four flying instructors and the one ground school instructor were white.
It was the opinion of qualified observers that the SEACTC paid little attention to this installation. No one at Maxwell Field is supposed to have taken the project very seriously. As the program got under way, the headquarters was generally content to permit it to move along undisturbed. For the first six months there were almost no visitors and very few inspectors. Perhaps the authorities were wary of the racial aspects and the political implication of the negro undertaking.(22)
To return to the story of the Army airfield at Tuskegee, construction there began on 15 July. There were some difficulties in connection with the project officer's relations with the engineers and colored contractors. At one point it appeared that the field would not be completed by 8 November as had been planned.(23) In fact, the date itself represented a postponement of one month. The SEACTC authorities were alarmed at this news. For they had scheduled training for that date. The report from the SEACTC to the engineers indicates a sense of the political importance of this entire project, often discussed informally but seldom appearing in writing. It was stated that the Tuskegee undertaking was considered by the War Department as no. 1 priority, due to the political pressure that had been brought to bear upon the White House and the War Department to provide pilot training for negroes. A delay might seriously embarrass the War Department. For this reason, the engineers were urged that "training must be initiated on scheduled regardless of cost."(24)
On 6 August 1941, the SEACTC assumed jurisdiction over the Air Corps flying school at Tuskegee with Major James A. Ellison in command. Ellison had actually taken command on 23 July, but had been so involved with the negro contractors that he had devoted little time to administrative details. Also, many agencies confused the two Tuskegee projects and mail was often delayed. Enlisted men sometimes reported for the one station, whereas they were intended for the other. More officers reported in during the following months, with Capt C. C. Ambler, becoming intelligence officer in November, and Capt Noel F. Parrish becoming director of training in December and later commanding officer. Major Ellison's office was first located in Austin Hall, Maxwell Field, later in Tuskegee in the engineering office, and finally in an old farm house on the air field.(25)
The organization did not operate efficiently due to the lack of training personnel and the chaotic housing and supply situation. Among other things, a severe shortage in office equipment prevailed. The area was extremely muddy. Already some of the white people in the community displayed a threatening attitude toward the establishment, with things almost reaching a crisis when white civilian guards were replaced by negroes.(26) An inspection by the SEACTC Inspector General in early October 1941, bears out the gloomy picture of inexperienced personnel and a desperate supply situation. He opined that it was doubtful that the first class would begin training on 8 November.(27)
Training did begin, however, on the date set, with four basic training planes and the five cadets and the officer who had just finished elementary at the Tuskegee Institute. All except one of his group have since seen action in the Mediterranean Theater with the 99th fighter squadron.
Everything was on a make-shift basis, since the field was not ready, the runway was unpaved and the barracks were not completed. The cadets and enlisted men were quartered in tent camps.
The winter weather and rains proved to be a real trial to this pioneer class. An inspection report of December 1941, complained that some of the officers were deficient in military courtesy, that copies of regulations and guides were not in order, and that the adjutant and personnal section were very unsatisfactory. The quartermaster office was in a disorganized state, and the main kitchen was unsanitary. Morale, however, appeared good, and there seemed to be no inter-racial trouble.(28) By December 1941, there were 12 white officers, 13 colored officers, 15 white enlisted men, 107 colored enlisted men, and colored students at the Tuskegee basic school.(29)
This establishment for training negro pilots was indeed a significant experiment, more perhaps from the sociological angle than from the military. On the whole, the authorities of the SEACTC had little to do with the projects other than providing routine supervision. If anything, the negro schools were neglected, without being either encouraged or sabotaged. If the attitude at Maxwell Field was frequently one amused detachment, it never appears to have been one of outright hostility. Perhaps it only reflected misgivings in high places with regard to the entire program.
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