May/June 1995 | Volume 46, Issue 3
He was to turn a segregated little army within an army into the world’s first black pursuit squadron
The young woman was niece to a Texas governor, with money and social entrée most appealing to Noel F. Parrish, the son of a clergyman whose ministries had been mainly in medium-size towns of Kentucky, Georgia, and Alabama. But Noel didn’t like his girl friend’s hands. He had no ration- al explanation. Just didn’t like them. So he took off, twenty-one years old, out of Rice Institute for two years, and hitchhiked to San Francisco. It was 1930. There were no jobs.
Small and skinny, and getting skinnier as he got hungry, he enlisted in the 11th Cavalry. He groomed horses and practiced equitation and saber play for a year and then went to be a flying cadet, learning on ancient biplanes and monoplanes that looked as if they were made of papier-mâché and had to be tied down with ropes on the Army’s open airfields so they didn’t blow away in a high wind.
He got a commission and became a flight instructor for the Army Air Corps. A decade went by. Europe was at war. The United States began strengthening its military forces, and one day a very strange and extremely startling directive came down from Washington. The Air Corps, which had never had a single black member, which was part of an army that possessed exactly two black Regular line officers, was to form a Negro pursuit squadron. Maj. Noel Parrish was named director of training.
Since the Civil War there had been black infantry and cavalry outfits (almost always under white officers), and a few black units and a complete division had been sent to the Western Front in 1918. Aviation was something else. Fliers were, after all, the knights of modern warfare, daring goggled-and-white-scarved duelists of the sky. Blacks were deemed usable for stevedore and labor and engineering and housekeeping duties, but a black flight outfit? Army fliers had to be officers, and that meant black pilots would have to have black ground crews, for no one could think of having white mechanics address such pilots as “Sir” or salute them. The whole project, people said, was a fantasy that had seized Eleanor Roosevelt, who had then foisted it off on the President.
Orders were orders. On July 19,1941, inaugural exercises at the Booker T. Washington monument at Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute marked the beginning of the world’s first military flight training for blacks. The candidates for officer-flier positions, America’s black press said, were the cream of the country’s colored youth. There were twelve of them, one being Capt. Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., who got out of the United States Military Academy in 1936, the first black graduate there in forty-seven years, and who during his time at West Point had been “silenced,” no one speaking to or looking at him save in the performance of official duties. Opening classes began at the institute, with flying lessons to follow at Tuskegee Army Air Field (TAAF) some ten miles away, its having been built, government press releases pointed out, by Negro contractors and with Negro skilled and unskilled labor forming the work force.
From the first there were problems. Locals objected to black MPs challenging white people and going about with weapons when they patrolled in town. The commanding officer supported the MPs but soon was relieved. His replacement, an old-line Army colonel, stood fast for Whites Only and Colored Only drinking fountains and bathrooms on the base and issued orders forbidding any whites to enter the post theater or canteen, where they might sit next to or eat with blacks. Black newspapers protested. The old-line colonel was kicked upstairs. His replacement was the director of training.
Parrish was then thirty-three years old but looked far younger, was witty, polished, and affable, had great finesse and charm, was a great ladies’ man, had written many magazine articles under a nom de plume, and was interested in music and painting. His previous doings indicated no great involvement with or concern about blacks. As a kid, he remembered, he once hiked three miles to see a scorched tree where a black man had been burned to death. He was aware, he said later, that a “weird and worried kind of laughter” issued from people’s mouths when they heard of the project to make blacks into fliers and mechanics, and he had heard from a visiting British air ace that it was better to have a “Messerschmitt on his tail than to try to teach a Negro to fly.” But he had been told to make a pursuit squadron from this separate and segregated little army within an army, and, a professional flier and teacher, he set out to do so. Parrish was no crusader and no philanthropist. What mattered in creating fliers, he said, was cold professional judgment of individual capacities and techniques taught with a stern thoroughness as impersonal as the universal laws of physics and aerodynamics. Negroes might or might not use inborn rhythm to fly, he said, and might or might not have better night vision than whites, or who knew what mysterious abilities. If such proved to be the case, these capabilities would be used for the benefit of the military’s air arm. As for letting the downtrodden slip by in the name of benevolence, that would get them killed. Men would perform to the highest standards expected of whites, or he’d wash them out of his outfit.
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.