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Straighten up ... Fly right

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- I think we would all agree the freedoms we enjoy as Americans are a direct result of sacrifices made by the armed service members in our history.

While written history has not always been recorded it in its entirety, whether in foreign countries, on our own soil, or in the skies, the battles to gain and maintain our freedom have included, and in many cases depended upon, the efforts of African-Americans.

Since 1641, there has never been a time when African-Americans were unwilling to sacrifice for America. Black men and women have willingly served and died for their country.

Still, a 1925 Army War College study concluded that because African-Americans "lacked intelligence and were cowardly under combat conditions", they would never have what it takes to fly aircraft of any type. Although there were already several licensed black pilots flying in the United States, it would be more than 20 years before this ill-conceived notion went up in smoke over the skies of Europe.

On Jan. 16, 1941, the War Department announced the formation of the 99th Pursuit Squadron, one of several black flying units to be trained at Tuskegee, Ala.

That same month, the Secretary of the Army announced that, since there were no black officers in the Army Corp, 11 white officers would be assigned the duty of training 429 enlisted men and 47 officers as the first black military personnel in the flying school. Thus, the "Lonely Eagles," as the pilots called themselves, came into being.

Ironically, the 99th Pursuit Squadron (which later become the 99th Fighter Squadron) and other units were all originally part of an experiment put together by the War Department to prove the validity of the previously mentioned 1925 study.

Knowing the odds were against them, and that they had to perform nearly perfectly just to receive a satisfactory rating, many of the men put together a tune which later developed into a phrase which was featured in "The Tuskegee Airmen," a movie starring Lawrence Fishburn.
 
One pilot would say "Straighten up," and another would respond, "Fly right."
 
On Jan. 17, 1997, while at Fairchild AFB, I had the honor of meeting two distinguished officers from this unit. Retired Cols. James T. Wiley and William Holloman III. They shared that the statement "Straighten up...fly right" was used to keep each other in check and as a reminder to stay sharp.
 
"Anything less would lead to the demise of our unit," they said.

The 99th became a respected group of fighter pilots, all while dispelling the myth placed upon them. One of the unit's greatest claims to fame was that as a bomber escort group protecting American bombers on their missions deep into Europe, the 99th never lost a bomber to enemy fighters.

The unit was also responsible for the formation of several other black air corps units, including fighter, bomber and composite squadrons and groups.

In June of 1943, Lt. Charles Hall of Indiana shot down his first enemy plane and became the first member of the 99th to down a German aircraft. He was personally congratulated by Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower.

The combat records, as of June 1945 showed the 99th destroyed, or damaged, 136 aircrafts in the air and 273 aircrafts on the ground, one destroyer, 126 locomotives, seven tanks, two ammunition dumps and much more.

The awards received included: one Legion of Merit, one Silver Star, two Soldier Medals, eight Purple Hearts, 95 Distinguished Flying Crosses (some records reveal at least 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses), 14 Bronze Stars, and 744 Air Medals.
 
Their story may not be widely known partly due to their combat records being glossed over in the annals of American history, nevertheless, the spirit and success of the Tuskegee Airmen continues to have far reaching implications for the U.S. military.

Most importantly, they proved, under fierce opposition at times, that the color of the hands on the controls has absolutely nothing to do with the skills or abilities of the crew.

February is Black History Month. Take time to learn about and remember the many contributions African-Americans have made not only to the U.S. military, but to the country.