Profile - The CAF Red Tail Project

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South St. Paul, MN, United States
The mission of the Commemorative Air Force's (CAF) Red Tail Squadron is to preserve and share the history and legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen, America's first black military pilots. The Airmen served with distinction during WWII (and beyond). They overcame racism on the ground to fight fascism in the air, fighting for a country that turned a blind eye to policies and a large population that discriminated against these men and their families because of the color of their skin. The CAF Red Tail Squadron restored and flies a red-tailed P-51C Mustang such as the Airmen flew during WWII. The airplane appears at air shows in North America and at each stop her crew tells the story of the Airmen and how through persistence and courage they overcame huge obstacles in order to serve in the military. In 2011, the CAF Red Tail Squadron developed a traveling exhibit called "RISE ABOVE" to educate people - especially young people - about the Airmen and how they demonstrated the importance of setting goals and overcoming obstacles in order to succeed.

Friday, March 25, 2011

The New Website

     The creative team for the CAF Red Tail Project met last week to discuss strategy for the Project's new website which will roll out this summer.  During that meeting, the team quickly discovered that it may be easier to decide what to include in the new site than what to leave out. The graphics and photos that are available to us are all good. The stories that the Project has to tell are all interesting.  Oh, it will be a challenge but here's a hint of what the team has in mind.
     The Project is completely focused on education so the website will concentrate a large segment on RISE ABOVE, its educational program for kids in grades 4 through 9.  It would be easy to write pages and pages about the six tenets of RISE ABOVE as they relate to the Tuskegee Airmen:

Aim High
Believe In Yourself
Use Your Brain
Be Ready to Go
Never Quit
Expect To Win

     With the Airmen's history of courage and perseverance to first get what they wanted - to be allowed to train as U.S. military pilots - and then excel in that role during WWII, it's easy to contemplate developing a lot of copy and educational materials.  However, website visitors shouldn't feel overwhelmed so the goal will be to make every word, graphic and lesson relevant and interesting.
     Then, of course, there's the P-51C Mustang named "Tuskegee Airmen" that the Project restored - twice - and flies as tool to interest people in the Airmen's story. Its saga has enough drama to easily populate a separate website!
     The development of the RISE ABOVE traveling exhibit will need attention and explanation.  As I write this, decisions are being made about how to configure the exhibit and how the electronics will work in the hands-on displays.  This is exciting stuff that will need to be reported on and updated on the website.
     The volunteers and donors for the Project will also have some space on the new website.  How do you adequately thank people who open their hearts and checkbooks with a bit of binary code for all to see? 
     The e-store will be completely revamped to make shopping easier and more fun.  The product line will be reviewed and expanded.  I like to shop as much as the next lady, but I'm glad I don't have to choose what the store will be offering on the new website!  The team wants to design this well because all proceeds from the store's sales go to support the Project's mission of educating people - especially young people - about the Tuskegee Airmen's challenges and accomplishments.
     So the work begins - figuring out the layout and page progression, choosing the graphics, and writing the copy and lesson plans.  Having too much incredibly interesting historical information and too many graphics to choose from is a good problem to have: the team is up to the challenge.
     The blog will keep everyone posted as the website rebuild journey continues so check back regularly.  If you don't, we'll miss you...

The CAF Red Tail Project is a volunteer-driven 501c3 non-profit organization that operates under the auspices of the Minnesota Wing of the Commemorative Air Force. For more information, please visit

Friday, March 18, 2011

The Ground-Based Tuskegee Airmen - Part 2

   Today we conclude the two-part series about the men of the 99th Pursuit Squadron who trained as aviation ground support members at Chanute Air Field in Illinois during WWII.   Although they were not pilots, they and thousands of other support personnel are also known as "Tuskegee Airmen."
     Last week's blog featured some of the marvelous photos from the Chanute Air Museum's collection showing the men in training and at work.  This week, the photos will show more of what the members of the 99th and the 332nd Fighter Group experienced while stationed in North Africa and Italy.
     Captions  appear above the photo - hope you enjoy them!

Music helped to pass the time.

A Matchless British motorcycle with an American - George T. McCrumby - on board. You can see part of "99th" painted on the gas tank under his right hand.

Heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis visited the 332nd.  Although he was an enlisted man, most of Louis' war experience involved celebrity appearances.  Louis was known as the "Brown Bomber" during his career and was heavyweight champ from 1937 to 1949  He successfully defended his title 25 times, including 13 bouts from January 1939 through May 1941. That's 13 bouts in 17 months!

Church was important.  Here's a chapel service.  The leader of the 99th, Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. is on the right with his arms folded across his chest.

Chaplains were assigned to all of the black units.  Here is Chaplain Cyrus W. Perry from the 332nd with a colleague.

Life could get serious very quickly in an air combat unit.  The ambulance crews were well-trained and ready for action at a moment's notice.

This Mustang met the ground a bit too heavily when the gear failed.

The Tuskegee Airmen were exceptional fighter pilots, but despite their best efforts, some  died in the line of duty.  Erwin B. Lawrence was the 3rd CO of the 99th after Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. and George Roberts. He died in the air over Rome on October 4, 1944.

Living conditions weren't always perfect, either.  For instance, it could get very muddy in Italy.

The Tuskegee Airmen racked up a lot of citations and medals as they flew and fought in the skies over Africa and Europe.  Here, Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. presents Bronze Stars to members of the 332nd.

Davis also received awards.  In this photo, his father, Benjamin O. Davis, Sr. - the only other black line officer in the U.S. Army - pins the Distinguished Flying Cross on his son.

Proud papa - Ben Davis, Sr.

     For every one of the thousands of Tuskegee Airmen, there was a network of family and friends back home loving them, supporting them and praying for their safe return.   Air war tactics have changed over the years - think unmanned drones - but the basics have not.  Even in the 21st century, when men (and now women) go to war, loved ones still love them, support them and pray for their safe return.

The CAF Red Tail Project is a volunteer-driven 501c3 non-profit organization that operates under the auspices of the Minnesota Wing of the Commemorative Air Force. For more information, please visit

Friday, March 11, 2011

The Ground-Based Tuskegee Airmen

     Today we're presenting a "slide show" about the soldiers who supported the pilots who graduated from Tuskegee.  Thanks to the Chanute Air Museum, which has an amazing archive of WWII photos of the Tuskegee Airmen in the field, the narrative will be minimal and the eye-candy will be maximized.  
     Before the first cadet even began his flight training at Tuskegee, 250 young black men began to learn aircraft ground support trades at Chanute Air Field in Rantoul, IL as part of the newly formed 99th Pursuit Squadron.  They and thousands more would support the pilots and their airplanes in North Africa and Italy from 1942 until the war's end in 1945.  

Here we go ... (captions will always precede the pictures)

Members of the 99th trained in administration at Chanute Air Field

Anthony Jones learned sheet metal
Field Communications were taught inside and out...

The 99th's Air Mechanics celebrated their graduation at Chanute

Communications Officer Dudley Stephenson was one of seven young men in the first 99th communications class.  This picture was taken in North Africa. 

This is line chief Ellsworth H. Dansby.  The line chief was responsible for all of the mechanics and all of the work done on the squadron's aircraft.  His crews worked mostly outside, in all weather, knowing that the quality of their work could determine if the pilot returned safely. This picture was taken in North Africa where the crews dealt with hot days, cold nights, blowing sand and the enemy.

A ground crew taking a "cooling off" break by a P-40 Warhawk in North Africa

A mechanic works on a P-51C Mustang's landing gear - note the wing jack

William McCool washes a P-51 Mustang

After the airplane is deemed fit to fly, it's time for the armament teams to go to work

Armament specialists bore sight a machine gun

This armorer is loading .50 caliber shells for the P-51C Mustang's machine gun.  Wonder how much that bullet belt weighed...

You may recall last week's blog talked about the first graduating class at Tuskegee.  As noted, Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. went on to lead the 99th.  Here's a picture of him (third from left), along with his classmate (and second in command), Operations Officer George Roberts (fifth from left) with others.  They are standing by Davis' own P-51C Mustang, "By Request".  The name reflects how the Tuskegee Airmen were requested by bomber pilots to protect them on their missions.  The CAF Red Tail Project's P-51C Mustang also has "By Request" painted on it- up by the windscreen - to honor Davis and the 99th.

That's it for this week - next week we'll have pictures of life in camp and more.

If you enjoyed this, would a couple of you please leave a comment?  I'm not seeing that we have any comments on any of our blog entries.  This means either everyone is very shy or the function is not working.  I'd like to test it with your help. (Your comments do not have to be complimentary!)   Thank you.

The CAF Red Tail Project is a volunteer-driven 501c3 non-profit organization that operates under the auspices of the Minnesota Wing of the Commemorative Air Force. For more information, please visit

Friday, March 4, 2011

69 Years Ago, Five Black Men Made History

     On March 7, 1942, the first class graduated from Tuskegee Army Air Field as US Army Air Corps pilots.  The class had started with 13 cadets but eight washed out of the rigorous training.  The five who remained had accomplished something that no black man had ever done before.
     Who were those guys from Class 42-C anyway?

Captain Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., from Washington, DC
     Davis was the son of Army Brigadier General Benjamin O. Davis, Sr.  He attended Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio and the University of Chicago before being appointed to West Point in 1932. His experience as a black man at West Point where he was shunned - no other cadets spoke to him except in an official capacity  during his four years there - added to the strength of character that he would exhibit as he led his pilots into battle during World War Two.  He was actually stationed at Tuskegee, teaching military tactics at the Tuskegee Institute, when he was accepted into the newly established flight program for black men there. 
     His war record as a pilot and leader was exemplary, but what could arguably make him most notable as a military leader was his determination that his pilots do their duty and protect the bombers they were accompanying on missions, no matter what.  It was drilled into the fighter pilot cadets at Tuskegee that they were to stay with the bombers and never go roaming to seek out enemy planes during the mission.  They were particularly to stay with the "wounded birds," planes that were limping along due to damage or system/engine issues.  Enemy fighters liked to go after the easy marks first.  It was the Tuskegee pilots' flying skill coupled with their dedication to protecting the big bombers that earned them the "red tail angels" nickname.
     After the war, Davis was instrumental in helping to draft a blueprint for the Air Force's plan to desegregate along with the rest of the US military.  President Truman signed the desegregation order in 1948.
     Davis retired with the rank of Lt. General in 1970 after serving in various US posts as well as Korea and the Philippines.  In 1988, President Clinton awarded him his 4th star, making him a full General.   At one point after his retirement from the military, he joined the US Department of Transportation where he supervised the sky marshal program and airport security measures. 
     Davis died on the Fourth of July, 2002 of Alzheimer's disease.  During his funeral ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery, the Red Tail Project's P-51C Mustang participated in the honorary fly-over.  Click here for more information about General Davis and pictures of his funeral cortege and the flyover. 

2nd Lt. Lemuel R. Custis from Hartford, CT  
     Prior to being drafted into the military, Custis earned a Bachelors of Science degree from Howard University and in 1939, became Hartford’s first African American police officer. 
     After the Tuskegee graduation ceremony, Custis was assigned to the 99th Fighter Squadron and flew 92 combat missions in the P‑40.  He received the Distinguished Flying Cross for his heroism.  He later returned to Tuskegee as an advanced flight instructor and was released from active military service from the U.S. Army Air Force in 1946 with the rank of Major.  He returned to Connecticut and worked in state government.  Custis was the last surviving member of the first Tuskegee Airmen class when he died in 2005.

2nd Lt. Charles H. DeBow, Jr. from Indianapolis, IN 
     While DeBow was attending Hampton Institute (now University) in Virginia in 1939, the Institute was selected as a Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP) site and DeBow was one of 20 students chosen to learn to fly.  He loved flying so much that when he realized that there wasn't enough money to allow him to attend college and fly, he quit school and moved to Chicago where he could fly, working in a steel factory to pay for it.  He applied twice to the US Army Air Corps to be a pilot and the second time was the charm - he was accepted into the first class at Tuskegee. After graduation, DeBow commanded the 301st Fighter Squadron starting in 1943 when it was assigned to Italy and he flew 52 combat missions in the European Theater, including support for D-Day.
     After the war ended, he returned to Indiana, earning Master's degrees from Butler University in Indianapolis and Indiana University in Bloomington.  He taught high school English and was also associate lecturer in English at Indiana University/Purdue University.  He and his wife had seven children.  He died in 1986.

2nd Lt. George S. Roberts from Fairmont, WV  .
     Roberts graduated from West Virginia State College with a BS degree in mechanic arts in 1938.  While in school, he had joined the Civilian Pilot Training Program.  He was accepted to Tuskegee in 1941 and immediately after the 1942 graduation ceremony, he married his fiancĂ©e, which made the newsreels. and many magazines nationwide. Lt. Colonel Benjamin O. Davis Jr. named Roberts to be Operations Officer of the 99th Fighter Squadron and Roberts commanded the Squadron after Davis went back to the States to lead the 332nd Fighter Group.  Roberts eventually succeeded Davis as commander of the 332nd. Roberts flew 78 combat missions during the Second World War.
     After the armed forces was desegregated in 1948, Roberts  became the first black officer to command a racially mixed unit at Langley AFB.  In 1950, he was assigned to Korea where he commanded the 51st Air Base Group and the Air Force base at Suwon.  He had a 26-year career in the military where he amassed more than 6,000 hours of flying time. He retired with the rank of Colonel in 1968 and went to work in the banking industry in California. He retired from that career in 1982 and died in 1984.  A bridge in his hometown is named after him as is the Tuskegee Airmen Inc. chapter in Sacramento, CA. 

2nd Lt. Mac Ross, from Dayton, OH 
     After the March graduation, he led the 100th Squadron as it was activated in May, 1942.  In July 1943, he became its Group Operations Officer (the Squadron was now based at Selfridge Field in Michigan).  He died on June 10, 1944 but circumstances regarding the cause of death remain elusive to a general researcher of modest ability.  The Dayton (OH) chapter of Tuskegee Airmen Inc. is named after him.

A small group of five men, all of whom were patriots in heart and pioneers in fact.  

The CAF Red Tail Project is a volunteer-driven 501c3 non-profit organization that operates under the auspices of the Minnesota Wing of the Commemorative Air Force. For more information, please visit