An uneasy question for the Tuskegee Airmen

The heroism of the Tuskegee Airmen is legendary, but some wonder if they really never lost a bomber. And that doesn't sit well.

By WILLIAM R. LEVESQUE, Times Staff Writer
Published January 26, 2008

It is an enduring legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen, repeated by Hollywood, presidents and by the pioneering black pilots themselves:

They never lost a bomber they escorted in air-to-air combat during World War II.

In 2004, a black Navy veteran, history buff and longtime Tuskegee fan stood before the group and uttered the unforgiveable.

He called the record a myth.

What followed was a rare dustup within the Tuskegee ranks, one that has raised questions and tempers over a fighting record that is much more than a point of pride for the Tuskegee pilots.

It's part of American history.

At the controversy's heart is 80-year-old Bill Holton -- tenacious, long-winded, irascible and unbending.

"We shouldn't perpetuate a myth just because it's a myth," said Holton, who insists documents from the era prove his case. "The Tuskegee Airmen have an outstanding record -- not perfect. Now everybody is trying to hide the truth."

Tuskegee veterans, and even some historians, are enraged by such talk and say Holton should just keep his mouth shut.

"We had a record that was pretty unique," said Luther Smith, 87, a Tuskegee pilot from outside Philadelphia who said he never witnessed a bomber lost to German fighters during 133 missions.

"I should know," he said. "I was there."

Yet, one other person says Holton may be right. He confirmed three bomber losses. He isn't happy with what he's found.

That's because he's a Tuskegee pilot, too.

Research and anger

The Tuskegee airmen were pioneers, the first all-black aviation unit in American military history. They bridged a racial divide with unquestioned bravery and skill.

Historians say the airmen -- called Red Tails for their plane markings -- flew more than 300 missions and were disciplined, aggressive fliers, well-respected by the bomber crews they protected.

Holton, who lives in Maryland, served as the official historian of Tuskegee Airmen Inc., a group of surviving Tuskegee pilots and their supporters.

Holton isn't an academic historian, having studied African studies, geology and geography in college. But he said his research skills are sharp.

In 1996 or 1997, Holton said, he heard a white fighter pilot complain that the Red Tails weren't perfect -- every fighter group lost bombers.

That angered Holton, who wanted to prove the man wrong. But he waited until 2003 to begin research. He felt no rush, he said, and wanted to wait for the Red Tails' 60th anniversary in 2004.

He figured proving the record correct would make a big splash at the group's convention in Nebraska.

But Holton said he found that World War II bomber and pilot reports showed five bombers under Tuskegee protection were shot down by German fighters.

"I expected some flak," said Holton, who presented the information at the convention. "I just didn't expect the magnitude."

Ron Brewington, 61, a broadcast journalist who has long been fascinated by the Red Tails and serves as the group's spokesman, said Holton was told to keep the news to himself until it could be verified.

He said Holton disobeyed.

"You have to understand that the record keeping in World War II wasn't as good as it is today," said Brewington, who said the accuracy of Holton's assertion is still unverified. "So a lot of mistakes were made."

Two years later, Holton said, reporters started calling him. Brewington thinks Holton is the one who did the calling.

Stories appeared.

Soon, Daniel Haulman, a historian at the Air Force Historical Research Agency in Montgomery, Ala., confirmed Holton's results and said the Red Tails may have lost up to 25 bombers.

"It's about as clear as it can be," Haulman said.

The reaction from the Tuskegee community was immediate outrage. Many Red Tail pilots condemned Holton, who said the losses didn't tarnish the Tuskegee record. He said it was still excellent, maybe the best of any fighter group in the war.

But Alan Gropman, a white professor at the National Defense University in Washington who has extensively researched the Red Tails, said what most angered the pilots was the implication they had lied about their record.

"That's inconceivable to me," Gropman said.

Gropman said Holton is guilty of sloppy research and assigned losses to the Tuskegee pilots for bombers escorted by white fliers.

"I've read over 200 mission reports," Gropman said. "There are no bombers lost to fighters. It's not as cut and dry as Holton and some others think."

Bill Holloman, 83, who taught black studies at the University of Washington, is the Tuskegee airman who now heads the group's history team. He wanted to set the record straight.

He said much of Holton's research is wrong. But Holloman said a review of records -- he spent $3,000 of his own money investigating -- did confirm lost bombers.

"Some are going to get mad at me for telling you," Holloman said. "We've had people who listened to the myth for so long they don't want to give it up."

But to Holloman, the Tuskegee story is about pilots who rose above adversity and discrimination and opened a door once closed to black America -- not about whether their record is perfect.

"Let's face it," said Charles Hardy, 82, a Tuskegee Airman living in Sarasota, "whether (Holton's) right or wrong, we had one hell of a record any way you look at it."


About the Tuskegee Airmen

The Tuskegee Airmen flew with distinction during World War II. They were pioneers in the segregated Army Air Corps, battling prejudice within the military's own ranks even to be allowed to fly. About 1,000 black pilots trained at the Tuskegee Army Air Station in Alabama during the war. Today, about 129 pilots are still alive. They were nicknamed the "Red-Tail Angels" or just "Red Tails," both for their tail markings and for their excellent record protecting bombers. They flew several fighters, including the P-51 Mustang, mostly out of bases in Italy.