Words Versus Military Tuskegee Top Gun Actions

By Scott Spangler on August 22nd, 2022

President Harry Truman signed Executive Order 9981 on July 26, 1948. It mandated the desegregation of the US military. Truman stood firm in the face of pushback from politicians and military officers of all ranks from all branches who opposed an integrated military. “I am asking for equality of opportunity for all human beings, and as long as I stay here, I am going to continue the fight,” he wrote in response.

The order concluded: “It is hereby declared to be the policy of the President that there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion, or national origin. This policy shall be put into effect as rapidly as possible, having due regard the time required to effectuate any necessary changes without impairing efficiency or morale.”

The United States Air Force was not even a year old when Truman signed his Executive Order, but its inaugural secretary, W. Stuart Symington, supported it. In December 1949, the Air Force reported that the number of integrated units had doubled between June and August of that year. Ebony magazine wrote that this effort represented the “swiftest and most amazing upset of racial policy in the history of the US military.”

In January 1949, the Air Force held its first aerial gunnery competition, then called Top Gun, at Las Vegas Air Force Base, now known as Nellis, said Lt. Col. James Harvey III (above), in the AARP Reporting for Duty YouTube episode, The Untold Story of the First Top Gun Competition. Now 98, he wears the red blazer of the Tuskegee Airmen, of which he was one, and ball cap embroidered with “1st Top Gun Winner – 1949 P-47.”

The competition was open to all fighter groups; they would send their top three pilots and an alternate. The 82nd Fighter Group team flew P-51 Mustangs. The teams from the 27th, 52nd, and 325th fighter groups flew the hot, new P-82 Twin Mustang. The team from the 332nd, Harvey, Alva Temple, Harry T. Stewart Jr., and Halbert Alexander, flew the obsolete P-47 Thunderbolt.

Being phased out of active duty, and with no war to fight, the Thunderbolts competed in a gunnery contest with no gunfights. But the pilots were motivated, Harvey said. Before the team left for the contest, the squadron commander, Benjamin O. Davis Jr., said, “If you don’t win, don’t come back.”

The teams would compete in four events: aerial gunnery, shooting at a towed target; strafing a fixed ground panel; dive bombing, skip bombing, and rocket firing. The P-82s of the 27th won the aerial gunnery event with 34.720. Sighting down the Thunderbolt’s nose, and the 332nd was right behind them 32.840.

The P-51s of the 82nd took the lead by winning panel strafing, with the Tuskegee P-47s second. Dive bombing was next, and “No one did good that day,” Harvey said. The positions did not change and the scores of the top two teams were 170.567 to 153.255. Skip bombing was another story. Each member of each member of the 332 team had a perfect score of 6 for 6, putting them in the lead with 353.255.

The 332nd won the final event, rocket firing, giving the team an overall score of 536.588. Behind them were: 82nd 515.010; 27th 475.325; 52nd 253.189; 325th 217.550. When 332nd was announced as the winner, Harvey said, “The room was quiet. No one expected us to win. It was the last time the public would see the trophy for 55 years,” said Harvey, who went on to fly 126 combat missions in Korea and retired in 1965. “Our victory was swept under the rug.”

Historian Zellie Rainey Orr uncovered the trophy and it was put on display at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in 2004. Working with the Tuskegee Airmen, AARP’s Wish of a Lifetime learned of Harvey’s story and his wish to visit Nellis and see the 332nd listed first on roster of top gun winners. Working through the Air Force Foundation, AARP realized Harvey’s wish, and on January 11, 2022, a plaque was unveiled at Nellis AFB honoring this historic moment in Tuskegee Airmen history.

Actions speak louder than words in every instance. It took 73 years for the Air Force to recognize the 332nd victory, but the group’s commander, Benjamin O. Davis became the branch’s first black general officer in 1954. He earned his second star in 1959, and a third in 1965. President Bill Clinton awarded a fourth 1998. Tuskegee Airman Daniel “Chappie” James Jr. became the Air Force’s first four star general in 1975, when the branch was just 26 years old. General Charles Q. Brown Jr. became black Air Force chief of staff in 2020, first for any service.

Roscoe Robinson Jr. became the Army’s first black four-star general officer in 1982. Admiral Joseph Paul Reason earned his fourth star in 1996. The Marines promoted their first black officer to general when Michael Langley got fourth star in August 2022, just months before the Corps’ 247th birthday. – Scott Spangler, Editor.

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