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He Flew through Color Barriers

Tuskegee Airman visits Paul VI High School.

When Howard Baugh was first in the military, the prevailing wisdom in the armed forces was that African Americans were not intelligent, were not brave and lacked leadership skills. “Of course, it went without saying that we did not have what it took to operate a machine as complex as an airplane,” Baugh said.

Baugh was one of the first in a group that challenged those assumptions when he flew with the 99th Fighter Squadron, more popularly known as the Tuskegee Airmen. Baugh, 85, is a native of Petersburg, Va., and now lives in Midlothian. He came to Paul VI High School on Tuesday to tell the students there about his experiences.

Principal Philip Robey welcomed Baugh as a guest at what he said was one of the first Black History Month events at the school. "I'm happy to be able to start that here," Robey said.

“I think it shows that everyone’s capable,” said Trey Easton, 16, of Fairfax. “And, of course, we should all be very grateful to anyone who served.”

When Baugh joined the U.S. Army, it, like the rest of America, was segregated. Typically, segregated units would have black soldiers led by a white officer, Baugh said.

But in 1940, when President Franklin Roosevelt (D) was running for an unprecedented third term, he mandated that African Americans should be trained as pilots. Before the pilots could start training, the support crews had to be trained, Baugh said.

Typically, he explained, pilots were officers, and support crews, such as mechanics, were enlisted men; and societal convention would not allow a black man to outrank a white one.

After the support crews were in place, the first African-Americans were trained as pilots. Of 13 that began training, five completed the training in March 1942. Baugh was in the second group, 20 men that started training just after the first. “Only four of us actually graduated and got our wings,” he said.

THE GROUP was assigned to Tuskegee airfield in Tuskegee, Ala., where they waited for their chance to fight in the war, and they got the colloquial name that has come to symbolize the group.

Eventually, the pilots were first assigned to an airbase in Tunisia in North Africa. The squadron’s first commander, Baugh said, was a racist, who did whatever he could to undermine the squadron. “He said that we were cowards. He said that we could not fly an airplane,” Baugh said.

The commander faulted the squadron for not shooting down enemy aircraft but did not include in his reports that their assignments did not involve air-to-air combat.

“Our job was ground support,” Baugh said. His squadron would fly in close, using obsolete aircraft, and attack enemy ground positions. “The close support work demanded very precise flying,” he said. “I often led dive-bombing missions.”

Eventually, his squadron was joined by others and formed the 332nd Fighter Group, and the group was moved to Italy. They began flying escort for heavy bombers. Baugh flew 135 combat missions, and, along with his wingman, shot down one enemy plane over Anzio, Italy. “We flew over 1,500 sorties [missions] even though they said we couldn’t fly,” Baugh said.

When the war ended and Baugh and his comrades came home, they had hoped to find a country that would accept them more after the risks they had taken while fighting for their country. “We came back to find that nothing had changed,” he said.

There were stories, Baugh said, of German prisoners of war, who were white and who had been permitted to go places where the black soldiers could not. “It’s hard for young people who didn’t live back then to realize what it was like to live back then.”

However, the Tuskegee Airmen's efforts and the examples they set with their bravery, Baugh said, may have been one of the reasons that President Harry Truman (D) issued an order to desegregate the military, one of the first major institutions in the nation to be desegregated. “We no longer have to ride in the back of the bus,” Baugh said.