February 1, 2018 | View PDF
I have to admit that I kind of pride myself on being a fairly up-to-date guy on World War II history when it comes to the air war in Europe. For those of you who may have been reading my column for several years, I think you probably know that already. Well about eight years ago when I was doing some research on my book about Luftwaffe pilot Hans-Joachim Marseille, I came across an interesting photograph. It was a photograph of a black man sitting under the wing of a P-40 in North Africa circa 1941-42. He was wearing an British RAF (Royal Air Force) uniform and reading a magazine. Hmm. At the time, although I found it to be unique, I simply filed it away in the ole’ wet computer in my head to be looked at another day.
I was doing some reading when I came across yet another interesting photograph about three years ago. It was a photograph of a black man and a white man, both in RAF uniforms, standing in front of a Mosquito Fighter/Bomber aircraft. The caption stated the black man was the pilot and the white man was his navigator. Again, bells and whistles did not yet go off in my head like they should have. Then about a month ago, I saw a photograph of a British bomber crew in front of their bomber and the caption mentions all of the crewmembers and points out that the pilot was the black guy on the far left. Okay, now there were enough clues and signs to get me thinking. So I went to go to Google and typed in something like, “Black pilots, RAF, WWII, Photographs.” Boom!! A whole new world of aviation history opened up before me.
Here in Alabama, it is safe to say that almost everybody in the state has heard of the Tuskegee Airmen. Because of this, I will not go into a lot of detail here except to say that during the war, some 500 black pilots were sent overseas and these men fought in the entirely segregated 332nd Fighter Group consisting of the 99th, 100th, 301st and 302nd Fighter Squadrons. When I started looking at the black fliers in the RAF I came across a book titled, Caribbean Volunteers At War: The Forgotten Story of the RAF’s ‘Tuskegee Airmen’. Who knew??
In the early days of WWII, many men and women from the Caribbean, West Indies and West Africa signed up to fight for the British Commonwealth. As for the RAF, initially they had a restriction citing that only those of “pure European descent” could either fly or become officers but after many crushing losses to the Germans and the need for flyers was fully recognized, many men from these areas were allowed to fly and fight. These men hailed from Antigua, the Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Bermuda, Cuba, Dominica, British Guyana, Jamaica, Leeward and Windward, Montserrat, Nicaragua, Puerto Rico, St. Kitts, St. Lucia, St. Vincent, and Trinidad. In all, approximately 495 men of color, out of 6,000 who joined the RAF, flew for almost the entire duration of the war. Of these, 148 were killed in action. 100 of these men eventually got commissioned as
officers which was actually a big thing considering pre-war RAF policies. Let’s not also forget that there was an even larger contingent of men who fought on the ground, again fully integrated with the British Army, and some 15,000 who served as
What I found most interesting was that unlike the Tuskegee Airmen who only flew fighters in combat, in the RAF, these men flew fighters, bombers, attack, transport, Coastal Command aircraft, and flew aspilots, navigators, flight engineers, gunners, wireless operators and bombardiers. What more is that they flew entirely integrated within the RAF squadrons they were assigned. Black and white airmen lived, flew and died together. That is something you never saw in the USAAF, US Navy or US Marines during the war. I found that to be very intriguing.
One of the many anecdotes I found interesting is something I read in this book and others as well and has to do with how the RAF bomber crews were assigned to one another. In the USAAF for example, the crews were assigned by senior staff. In the RAF, all new crew members from each crew position were brought to their base and dropped off in a large hangar and told to “pick your crew.” So normally the aircraft commander would walk around, chat someone up and say, “Hey, wanna fly with me?” Then they would go off to the next guy. It was interesting that none of the black guys mentioned ever being left behind as the only ones not picked. Apparently, there was little racial animosity at the crew level. These guys knew they had bigger fish to fry than letting skin color dictate how they would operate as a crew. If you could complete training, you knew what you were doing.
Perhaps the most intriguing guy, to me at least, was a man named E.R. Braithwaite. He was from British Guyana and although his name may be unknown to most of you, it was to me, he is the man who wrote the book, To Sir, With Love in 1959. It was made into a movie starring Sidney Poitier in 1967 and is actually an autobiographical story of his later life. Although he flew fighters in the RAF during the war, worked as an engineer before the war and eventually got his PhD in Physics from Cambridge, he could not get a job in postwar England because of his skin color. That is why he ended up teaching school as portrayed in the movie. Among his many accomplishments, he eventually penned five novels, worked as a social worker, became Guyana’s Ambassador to Venezuela and died in 2016 at the age of 104 leaving behind 5 children.
In all, I found this part of forgotten history to be fascinating and worthy of further investigation by myself. Perhaps some of you may want to investigate a bit further as well.
People will disagree with anything. Anything!! Even when I think there should be 100% consensus, there are those who will disagree. “Nice day.” “No it’s not.” “Wow, that is a pretty painting.” “No, it’s ugly.” We call them contrarians. No matter what you say, they are going to disagree. Case in point. The wife and I went to see the new movie 12 Strong the other day. All I am going to say is that we both liked it a lot. Although sitting there watching Chris Hemsworth for two hours I was left asking God, “Did you even try with me?” When I did my Dunkirk review last year, I mentioned that when I see a movie about an actual historical event, I like to see photos of what the real people looked like and some closing facts about the event. This movie did not let me down and at the end, they showed a photograph of the actual 12-man team. Here goes my beef. Although there was no black guy in the photo, thus no black guy on the team, in the movie one of the team members was black. Why? I posted this question on a War Movie group on Facebook and what I thought was a no brainer turned out to be anything but. Although most agreed with me some strangely did not. One hapless fellow, right out of the chute with guns blazing actually said, “So you focus on the black guy and aren’t concerned with blah, blah, blah?”
Yeah, he actually went there. I asked him if in his world it would be okay if Jay-Z was seen flying a German Messerschmitt 109 over Dunkirk? Look, when it comes to movies, control what can be controlled. No blacks? So, what. No whites? So, what. No women? So, what. Why make it up? Sort of like the idiots who screamed foul that the movie Dunkirk did not have enough women and people of color in the major roles. Look, when doing a historical movie, keep what is known true. Simple. Now I am not talking about German soldiers carrying Enfield rifles because a studio may not have a ton of Mauser K-98s floating around. Or like in the movie Top Gun having black F-5s with red stars on the tail. News flash, there are not many MiGs lying about. But the day I will say it is okay to have Leonardo DiCaprio playing MLK or Dave Chappelle playing Adolf Hitler, in a drama, is never going to come around. Control what can be controlled.
About two weeks ago, radio personality and friend of mine, Kevin Elkins posted a simple question on his Facebook page. What was (is) the definition of racism? Simple. Easy. To the point. Just a question. Although I posted what I know to be the definition, you should have seen the dozens of comments that had nothing to do with Kevin’s original question. Talk about chasing rabbits down rabbit holes. Trump this, Trump that. Obama this, Obama that. It seems sad to me that in today’s world, everyone is so set on a certain agenda and will vehemently try to express it no matter what. I remember when I was a guest on Kevin’s show after my book on Marseille had come out. I was on the show to talk about my book but within ten minutes the callers had shifted the conversation to Black vs. White, marching on the Edmund Pettis Bridge and other totally unrelated race issues. I am there to talk about a German fighter pilot and the callers only want to talk about their opinions on race. During the break, I looked at Kevin and asked him what the heck was going on. All he said was, “Welcome to my world, Tater.” It is frustrating to say the least.