Reaching for the Sky: The Story of the Tuskegee Airmen and the Pilots of the Caribbean


     As an American with a profound interest in the United Kingdom, among the things which fascinates me is the interplay of society and culture between our two countries. Going further as a black person, I tend to spend time looking about for parallels and differences between the experiences of Black Britons and African Americans.

     So with Black History Month in America drawing to a close, I watched a documentary about the famous Tuskegee Airmen, the group of black pilots who made history by being the first African-American military aviators in the US Armed Forces.

     Educated at Tuskegee University in Tuskegee, Alabama and trained at a nearby airfield during World War II, the airmen formed the 332nd Fighter Group and the 477th Bombardment Group of the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF). 992 pilots were trained from 1941 to 1946, and of these 355 were deployed overseas for active duty during the war – seeing action in the European and North African theater, and participating in 1578 combat missions and 179 bomber escort missions. Of those escort missions, only seven resulted in the loss of a plane for a total 27 lost aircraft, which was better than the average of the 46 within the 15th Air Force P-51 Mustang group. The Airmen were responsible for destroying 112 enemy aircraft in the air and 950 ground vehicles (rail cars, trucks, and tanks), while also putting an enemy destroyer out of action and sinking 40 other boats and barges.

     As a result of their efforts, the Airmen and their units received several awards, honors, and commendations – including a Silver Star, 14 Bronze Stars, 96 Distinguished Flying Crosses, 744 Air Medals, and eight Purple Hearts. Three Distinguished Unit Citations were also awarded to the 99th Pursuit Squadron for operations over Sicily in 1943, the 99th Fighter Squadron for successful air strikes over Monte Cassino, and the 332d Fighter Group – whose planes shot down three Nazi fighter jets during a bomber escort mission over Berlin in March 1945.

     However, these well-earned accomplishments could not disguise the fact that the Airmen faced racial discrimination in and outside of military, which was still segregated at the time. In many cases, they had to deal with commanding officers who looked down on them because of the color of their skin and went to extreme lengths to keep white and black personnel apart – even during instructional classes and theater briefings.

     Nevertheless, Airmen such as Roscoe Brown and Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. became heroes for their exploits and service to the country, and in the years following the war, pilots from the Tuskegee units were some of the best in the Armed Forces. Following the desegregation of the military in 1948, new opportunities opened up for these aviators as their skills were in high demand for military and civilian applications. Some went on to become civilian flight instructors and contribute to the development of aviation. Others stayed in the newly-formed US Air Force, such as Daniel “Chappie” James, Jr., who in 1975 became the first African-American four-star general.

     Beyond this is the legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen in terms of helping our country to move forward on matters of race. Like Jackie Robinson in the sports world, the Airmen helped to change attitudes and make it easier to break down racial barriers and legal segregation during the Civil Rights Movement. Today, they stand as inspirational pillars in our long and complex American story.

     After watching the Tuskegee Airmen documentary, I wondered if there was a similar group of black pilots in UK’s Royal Air Force during the Second World War as well.

     Thankfully, this did not take long as I discovered the “Pilots of the Caribbean” – black people from Britain’s Caribbean colonies answered the call for King and Empire who served in the flying services during not just World War II, but World War I as well. Along with native black Britons, thousands of African-Caribbean men and women volunteered in the fight for freedom and in the defense of Britain, her Empire and Commonwealth.

     In the First World War, they signed up, and like so many throughout the Empire, they did so out of a sense of patriotism, economic and personal reasons, and seeking adventure. However, most of them could only serve in colonial regiments – such as the British West Indies Regiment (BWIR) – and there was a “colour bar” which prevented many from participating in the armed forces of Britain itself, including native black Britons. Eventually, this was relaxed and as the war progressed, more black personnel ended up serving in the Royal Flying Corps, the Royal Naval Air Service, and from 1918, the Royal Air Force (RAF). Sergeant William Robinson Clarke from Kingston, Jamaica was the first Black volunteer to qualify as a pilot, and he flew R.E.8 biplanes over the Western Front in the summer of 1917. This compares favorably to the experience in the United States, where no African-Americans were allowed to serve as pilots in our armed forces during the “war to end all wars.”

     Unfortunately, there was more war to come after 1918, and when World War II broke out in 1939, African-Caribbean volunteers once again signed up to lend their service in the name of freedom and in defense of Britain and her Empire and Commonwealth. This time however, the RAF actively recruited from the Black colonies and encouraged thousands of young men to come to Britain to train as pilots. From the Caribbean, around 6000 African-Caribbean men volunteered for the RAF – 5500 as ground crew and over 400 as air crew – and 80 women became members of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF), with Jamaicans numbering the largest single contingent at 3700 strong.

     Together with Black people from Africa and Britain itself, these men and women served in all commands of the RAF, save for Transport Command, whose personnel traveled to countries that were intolerant of integrated crews. Indeed, the RAF generally took a firm and (for its time, progressive ) view of abolishing any color barriers and racism within their ranks – with the Air Ministry Confidential Order of June 1944 stating:

     “All ranks should clearly understand that there is no colour bar in the Royal Air Force…any instant of discrimination on grounds of colour by white officers or airmen or any attitude of hostility towards personnel of non-European descent should be immediately and severely checked.”

     During the war, the vast majority of the Black air crews took their place in Bomber Command, which was responsible for targeting and bombing strategic targets in Germany and Nazioccupied Europe, including railroads, communication lines, highways, and industrial sectors. Among the more noted names in this area include Flight Lieutenant William “Billy” Strachan and Flying Officer Lincoln Lynch of Jamaica. Strachan served in the 156 Squadron, a unit of the elite Pathfinder Force, whilst Lynch was posted to the 102 Squadron and was awarded the Air Gunner’s Trophy in 1943 and the Distinguished Flying Medal. There was also Flying Officer Akin Shenbanjo of Nigeria – a member of the 76 Squadron who was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC), Sergeant Arthur Young – a Welshman and native Black Briton of the 106 Squadron.

     Meanwhile, Fighter Command featured several Black airmen who helped to provide escorts to bombers, sweeps of enemy aircraft, and air support for ground forces. Among them include Flying Officer Arthur Weekes from Barbados, Flight Sergeant Collins Joseph and Warrant Officer James Hyde of Trinidad, and Flight Lieutenant Vincent Bunting – who all flew Spitfires (and in Bunting’s case, a Mustang fighter) and were responsible for shooting down enemy aircraft in fierce air campaigns.

     In Coastal Command, people such as Flight Lieutenant Lawrence “Larry” Osborne of Trinidad, Flight Lieutenant David Errol Chance and Aircraftman M. Hendricks of Jamaica, and Aircraftman G. Small of Barbados took part in reconnaissance missions, escort missions, and sinking enemy vessels (including U-boats, war ships, and merchant vessels) as they helped to win the Battle of the Atlantic and keep vital sea lanes open, while also being responsible for the RAF’s air-sea rescue service which saved over 10,000 lives. Osborne was a navigator aboard Liberator long-range reconnaissance bombers, while Chance participated in anti-shipping campaigns – first as a Beaufighter pilot in the Aegean Sea, then as a Mosquito fighter-bomber pilot in the North Sea.

     However, none of these aforementioned commands could have been effective in their efforts without ground staffs, and it was here where 5,500 black RAF personnel participated in a number of varying roles and trades. Included in this number were men and women such as Leading Aircraftman Philip Lamb of Bermuda, Leading Aircraftwoman Sonia Thompson of Kingston, Jamaica – who worked as an Instrument Repairer, and Flying Officer Reginald Foresythe – a native Black Briton of Nigerian descent who was born in London. Foresythe was a jazz composer, pianist and band leader, and though he was too old for combat duty, he joined the RAF and was commissioned as an Intelligence Officer in Britain and North Africa.

     By war’s end, these thousands of Black men and women from throughout the Britain and the Empire and Commonwealth made invaluable contributions in their service as members of the Royal Air Force and the overall effort to defeat Nazi Germany, and many were commissioned as officers and decorated for gallantry or exceptional service. It is hard to know exactly how many there were because ethnic origins were not recorded and the Black volunteers were fully integrated into the RAF services, but this is a credit to Britain for treating them generally in the same way as anybody else, and again, it speaks volumes about the UK’s relative progressiveness compared to the US, since the Tuskegee Airmen were racially segregated in our armed forces.

     As for personal discrimination on the part of white colleagues, while there were some instances of misbehavior and unfair practices, personnel of all backgrounds tended to get along well on a personal and professional level. For his part, Flight Lieutenant Billy Strachan said:

     “If by any reasonable calculation, one might have expected me to have suffered, if not discrimination, at least a constant barrage of racist jokes; I can confirm that this did not happen.”

     The lasting legacy of the Black RAF personnel is multifaceted. Some of the African-Caribbean’s returned home after the war, and played a role in obtaining independence for their countries in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Others would return to the UK permanently in 1948 aboard the Empire Windrush (with one-third of its passengers being RAF airmen returning from leave or veterans returning to the service) and being part of the large-scale post-war immigration from the Caribbean. Along with native Black Britons, they would go on to establish communities of their own in the UK – fighting against discrimination and for civil rights, and becoming business leaders, politicians, educators, statesmen, activists, and some made life-long careers in the RAF itself.

     Indeed, the RAF has noted on its website that it is “clear that the foundations of Britain’s Black community were laid in part by RAF veterans” and it partly because of them – like their Tuskegee counterparts in America – that British society and social attitudes have changed for the better. They reached for the skies and succeeded in more ways than one.

By Earl Chatham

(Read more of the writings of Earl Chatham at Hands Across the Pond)