Tag Archives: Vietnam

A Tribute to the Tuskegee Airmen

Tuskegee Airman on a "Buy War Bonds" WWII poster, autographed by Dr. Cyril O. Byron and Bill Peterson.

Thursday night (2/17/11), I attended a Tribute to the Tuskegee Airmen sponsored by the Community College of Baltimore County’s Aviation Club, Black Student Union and History Club.  It was a thrill!  Guests Dr. Cyril O. Byron, an original Tuskegee Airman (part of the ground crew) and Bill Peterson (a heritage Tuskegee Airman–his father was an original and he was the paperboy from 1945-46, later joining three years after integration) shared some of the experiences of serving in the military during the era of segregation.

During World War II, many black military units were minimized.  There were exceptions, such as the 761st Tank Battalion that served 183 consecutive days following General Patton.  The Navy had the Golden 13.  Black nurses served, but could not treat white combatants.  The Marines did not commission a black officer until November 10, 1945.  And, the colonel in command of the Tuskegee Airmen was a graduate of West Point, Col. Theo Davis, Jr., where he spent his four years in isolation, no one speaking to him.

Those who attended the tribute heard about popular contemporary fears that Army Air Corps-trained pilots from the Tuskegee program might seek work as commercial pilots after the war.  Everywhere the squadron went they were unwelcome.  At one point during the evening, a brief clip was shown that featured three Tuskegee original pilots.  Capt. Luther H. Smith, inspired at a young age by Charles Lindberg’s daring trans-Atlantic flight, was shot down on a mission, but told friends and colleagues that he was treated better as a POW than he was in America or in the military.  Lt. Col. Lee Buddy Archer, the Ace of the Red Tails, explained how as a boy in Saratoga Springs a pilot who was selling airplane rides for $5 refused his father and added to his determination to fly.  Col. Charles McGee, an original Tuskegee pilot flew in World War II, Korea and Vietnam, logging the most combat hours (as far as they knew) of any combat pilot.

Dr. Cyril O. Byron, now ninety years old, was a sophomore at Morgan State College when Uncle Sam invited him to join the Army, in 1942.  After time spent in New York, he was transferred down to Tuskegee, AL and assigned to the 99th Fighter Squadron.  He described Tuskegee as being as unfriendly to the colored units, as they were known, as one might guess.  They could not go into town.  If they wanted to watch a movie, they needed to make arrangements in advance at the base, go down to the cinema in one truck, wait while one man bought all the tickets and then file in through the side door and up to the balcony.  And, all this while wearing the uniform of the United States Army!  Dr. Byron said he actively chose to think positively adhering to his father’s words, “Don’t resent what you can’t prevent.”

The squadron would eventually be sent overseas, but would bounce around from unit to unit–all of the first few being British units–until they were assigned to an American base in Salerno, Italy.  Italian children would ask for candy then circle around the airmen.  At the time, they thought it was just a ploy to get more candy out of them, but then someone spoke to the children and learned that they had been told that black men had tails.  Italians  familiar with American culture would ask the airmen why they fought for freedoms that they did not have in America.  It was hard to answer such queries.

As an escort squadron, recognized by the red paint on the tails of their P-51 Mustangs–thus their nickname, “Red Tails“–they became one of the most requested units by bomber squadrons who had no idea that the pilots were black.  They were in such high demand, in fact, that one of the leaders named his aircraft, “By Request”.  A couple of years ago, Dr. Byron said a white man approached him to thank him for the success rate of the Red Tails, because his father had always insisted that had it not been for them he would not have survived the war.  Nonetheless, back on American soil, even German POWs had more access on American bases than the successful Tuskegee Airmen because of the color of their skin.  It would take 62 years for the United States to finally award medals of recognition to the airmen.

Following the war, Dr. Byron would finish his degree and then proceed to NYU for his Masters and further to Temple for his Ed.D.  Peterson would join up three years after the armed forces were integrated and through the military complete his education.

The presentation concluded with a final thank you from a CCBC aviation student, Doug, who had been a part of the Tuskegee Youth and Aviation Program at College Park, MD–CCBC awarded a $500 donation to the same program in gratitude for Mr. Peterson and Dr. Byron’s presentations and time Thursday evening.  Doug expressed his thanks briefly, not only for the direct involvement he had in their program, but also for the legacy that they had handed down to him from the days of segregation.

The evening’s events concluded with the movie, The Tuskegee Airmen.  It was a special evening and the parties involved at CCBC did a terrific job in bringing it all together!

Bill Peterson (standing, left, in red) and Dr. Cyril O. Byron (seated, right) sign autographs with Doug assisting (standing, right, in red).

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Korea–a really brief look at how we got here

Korea has always been stuck between a rock and a hard place, also known as China and Japan.  If it was not under the thumb of its neighbors in modern times, it was under the influence of imperialist European nations.  We might as well begin at the conclusion of World War II, when Korea had been forcibly liberated from Japan–a period of brutal treatment that has not been forgotten (as is evident from the Japanese textbook scandal a few years back which riled China, North Korea and South Korea with its glossed over account of Japan’s war crimes committed against the occupied people of these two countries).  Not unlike World War II Germany, Korea was divided by the Soviets and the Americans in the Allied attempt to defeat the Japanese.  The Soviets established the Korean Workers’ Party and installed their man, Red Army-trained Kim Il-Sung, founding the People’s Republic of Korea in 1948, accompanied by Soviet withdrawal.  When the South declared its independence the Korean War began with North Korea’s invasion.  Thus, it was one of the few hot spots during the Cold War.

Kim Il-Sung, the "Eternal Leader", with his son, Kim Jong-il, the "Dear Leader".

When folks refer to the Korean War as the forgotten war they are in part referring to the preference to look at the Second World War and Vietnam, while neglecting this brief but brutal conflict.  Over two million people died between 1950-1953.  Only twenty thousand fewer Americans died in that span than died in seventeen years of the Vietnam War.  In the end, with the involvement of U.S.-led coalition forces, the People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union, two Koreas were forged in brutal warfare, separating families and isolating the people of North Korea.

A Map of the Korean Peninsula (1993, CIA)

Roughly along the 38th Parallel is a no-man’s land, legendary for its absurdly large collection of land mines, which is guarded around the clock by North Koreans on the north wall and South Koreans and Americans on the south wall.  American forces have remained in South Korea since the Armistice that ended the Korean conflict.  (They have mostly been welcomed, but more recently their presence is controversial to a younger generation, especially given a level of inappropriate behavior by some soldiers.)  Whereas South Korea has achieved some economic stability, the North has been in a dire situation for decades with extremely poor health, short life expectancy and widespread hunger and starvation.  Conditions for aid have often been dependent on a more humane government, but it has sacrificed its people for weapons and a desire to establish a nuclear armament.

The physical darkness of North Korea and metaphor for the internal conditions.

Throughout the last decade and a half, the West and North Korea’s neighbors have been concerned about its attempt to negotiate for nuclear energy to solve some its internal problems.  The potential to turn energy into arsenal has always been a concern, though many agree that clean and abundant energy would be an asset to a nation that is significantly behind in medicine, food production, manufacturing, everything but military arsenals.  The so-called Six Party talks, named after the six countries at the table: North Korea, South Korea, China, Japan, Russia and the United States, have been orchestrated on numerous occasions to discuss the nuclear situation.  In the last decade North Korea even agreed to allow the International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA of the United Nations to conduct investigations and inspections intended to insure that all nuclear-interests were peaceful, but ultimately failed to make good on such promises.  Traditionally, China has insisted on protecting the North, and as with a small sibling, scolding and cajoling them into cooperation, but many question China’s influence, particularly in light of its recent economic changes.  Current events, including two attacks, may sorely test China’s right to keep little brother from straying into international conflict.

Kim Jong-il's family

In 1994, Kim Il-Sung died after amassing a substantial military regime, bolstered by Soviet and Chinese aircraft, artillery and guns, and was replaced by Kim Jong-il.  It is believed that the next succession is under way from Kim Jong-il to his youngest son Kim Jong-un, but given its closed society it is difficult to say for sure what it is intended.  If Kim Jong-il is about to end his career as North Korea’s supreme leader, it is worth remembering the brief thaw in North-South relations which many Koreans, separated since the conflict in the early 50s, were reunited.  It came during a brief period of hope that has since evaporated.  In contrast to this touching scene, we may also recall the presentation of his father as Eternal Leader ten years after his death and the fact that the country resembles nothing so much as a giant concentration camp.

The Kims. Kim Il-Sung holds the sickle of the USSR to emphasize his background.

In the last few months, North Korea has become increasingly provocative.  The most recent missile attack on Seoul has certainly ignited the South and led many to question whether war can be avoided–an unpleasant thought under the “best” circumstances but more disturbing now, given the confirmation of North Korea’s nuclear capabilities on par with Iran.  It becomes more difficult to predict what the next course of action will be and whether a non-violent solution is possible.

North Korea ups the ante...

This has been every bit as brief as advertised and as such is likely to be vulnerable to the inaccuracies or misguiding points that are often the product of brevity.  For this reason I wanted to provide some fast but more thorough resources recommended for further investigation.

For a quick analysis on economics, history and current political situation, such as it is known, the first place to start is the CIA World Factbook for North Korea: https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/kn.html and for South Korea: https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/ks.html.  I would also suggest the US State Department to see what it is providing and saying about current events.

For a summary on Korean history in an easy to access package, try the BBC’s website: http://search.bbc.co.uk/search?go=toolbar&uri=/history/worldwars/coldwar/korea_hickey_01.shtml&q=korea.  From that page you can link to country profiles on both North and South as well as recent headlines and news.  While you are there you may want to make use of the timeline: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/country_profiles/1132268.stm and the summary of the Korean War http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/worldwars/coldwar/korea_hickey_01.shtml–it is succinct, but more in depth than what I provided.  There are better and more academic sources out there, not least because they are written by political scientists, economists and historians, but they are not so brief.

The Economist also provides a brief commentary on the current situation and what should be done: http://www.economist.com/node/17577117?fsrc=scn/tw/te/mc/solvekorea

For a report on North Korea’s nuclear capabilities visit Foreign Policyhttp://thecable.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2010/11/23/hecker_north_korea_now_has_same_nuclear_defense_as_iran

Foreign Affairs also provides analysis on North Korea’s political situation in general with two articles from August 2010: http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/66581/sung-yoon-lee/the-pyongyang-playbook and October 2010: http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/66870/by-jennifer-lind/the-once-and-future-kim.  Note: both of these articles predate the most recent round of hostilities and the most escalating to date.

Finally, I recommend The Week, with its broad summary coverage of what the media is reporting and how it is commenting: http://theweek.com/article/briefing_blog/141/conflict-in-the-koreas–Bonus!: the site includes cartoon commentary!

Raising the next generation of Kims.

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