Colonel Parrish’s Orders

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Under great pressure from all who had any kind of opinion of matters racial, his little backwoods Tuskegee Army Air Field becoming, it was said, the focus of thirteen million black Americans observing the experiment, he did his work. The men went into PTI3A Stearman primary trainers, then the AT6, and finally the P40. The base grew: hangars; a control tower; repair shops; facilities for the training of radio operators, photographers, and weathermen.

There was little in the immediately accessible area to offer his troops recreational opportunities, so Parrish arranged morale-building visits from Lena Home, Joe Louis, Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Robinson, Louis Armstrong, and Langston Hughes. The base’s football team was invited to play Wiley College of Marshall, Texas, for the “National Negro Championship.” Parrish had in the mothers of his people proud women in hats and gloves, carrying purses and wearing corsages as they posed for pictures with the commanding officer of their United States Army Air Forces sons.

Parrish made full colonel. The personnel at TAAF reached 4,000, and in the faraway skies over Anzio in Italy the all-black 99th Fighter Squadron, each member of which had been trained at Tuskegee, began knocking down German planes. The 332d and 477th followed. A total of 966 fliers came from the airfield in the red-clay Alabama hinterlands to fly 15,553 sorties, to complete 1,578 missions, to lose 62 men in combat with 32 shot down and made prisoners of war. Schwarze Vogelmenschen , the Germans called them: black birdmen. They called themselves the Tuskegee Airmen. Benjamin O. Davis was not the only one of their number eventually to become an air general. What they did in the European skies was pointed to in the years after the war and very much helped desegregate the armed forces, which very much helped desegregate American life in a manner undreamed of when first they went to be fliers and mechanics and specialists.

Noel Parrish stayed in command at Tuskegee all through the war, got a general’s star, got a Ph.D. and taught history in the Texas he had fled because he didn’t like the girl friend’s hands, and retired. He died in 1987. Douglas MacArthur once had something to say about an old soldier who did his duty as God gave it to him to see that duty, and perhaps there was something to that in the life of the Southern minister’s son. Once at a meeting he was introduced with a reference to the old black spiritual “Now Let Me Fly.” Here was the man, the people at the meeting were told, who let blacks do just that.