for National Geographic News
Not many would expect to get a powerful lesson on racism and prejudice
during Black History month from a Bruce Willis movie. But that's exactly
what his current movie delivers.
In Hart's War, a black fighter pilot is falsely accused of murder at a German prisoner of war (POW) camp during World War II. While the movie is a work of fiction, the bigotry black soldiers faced both at home and in the armed forces is devastatingly true.
The movie is based in part on the experiences of America's first black fighter pilots, the Tuskegee Airmen. Willis, who is a history buff, calls the struggles of these pioneers an amazing story.
Shocking might be another word. Black soldiers who risked their lives in service to their country overseas faced prejudice and rigid segregation policies when they returned home. Even prisoners of war were treated better in the United States.
"Black soldiers, many of whom had seen combat overseas, would find when they returned to bases back home that German prisoners of war were given freedoms that black military personnel were not," said Samuel Broadnax, a former fighter pilot who graduated from Tuskegee Flight School in 1945. "The POWs were easily identified; they had big "Ps" on their backs painted in white, and they could go into commissaries, and under guard, into stores and try on clothes where blacks could not."
The Tuskegee Experiment
Just getting the right to train as pilots had been a fight. In 1925, the Army War College released a study claiming that Black Americans were inherently unqualified, physically and emotionally, for combat. At the start of World War II, the armed forces were completely segregated, and in many branches, blacks were allowed only menial jobs.
The "Tuskegee Experiment" began in July 1941 with the founding of a flight school at Tuskegee University in Alabama. A letter-writing campaign, a lawsuit filed by a Howard University student, and pressure from groups ranging from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to President Roosevelt combined to force the Army Air Corps to establish a trial program.
Everyone expected the "experiment" to fail.
"The pilots received all their training at one base," said Broadnax. "The usual practice would be to finish one component of training and then move to another school for the next stage. Tuskegee was much more difficult than the flight schools at white colleges. But no one believed blacks could fly, and no one wanted them to."
Against all odds, the Tuskegee Flight School proved to be a resounding success. Its graduates, who became known as the Tuskegee Airmen, formed the 99th Pursuit Squadron, and later the 332nd Fighter Group.
The pilots fought in the air war over North Africa, Europe, and Italy. Their record was one of the best; those flying combat missions shot down 111 German aircraft, damaged 25, and shot up 150 enemy aircraft on the ground. One destroyer was sunk by machine gun fire.
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