The World War II Training Experiences of the Tuskegee Airmen
at Oscoda Army Air Field, April-December 1943
David K. Vaughan
Increasing recognition has been deservedly given to the Tuskegee Airmen, the black pilots who received their initial training at the Tuskegee Institute during World War II. Although the phrase Tuskegee Airmen was not used during the war, it became widely known after it first appeared as the title of Charles Francis’ 1955 book about the African-American pilots who flew in the war. These men were named Tuskegee Airmen after the flying field near Tuskegee, Alabama, where one of the first educational institutions intended for blacks had been established after the conclusion of the Civil War. Once approved by the U. S. Government, flight training began at Tuskegee in 1941, and a training program was established that lasted throughout the war. All African-American pilots who flew in World War II learned to fly at the Tuskegee Airfield, and many African-American enlisted men who served in black aviation units were trained there as well. While the term Tuskegee Airmen initially referred to only the pilots and other flight crew members, such as navigators and bombardiers, it was soon expanded to include the enlisted men who supported and maintained the aircraft flown by the black airmen.
The first graduates of the Tuskegee flying program formed the core of the 99th Fighter Squadron, which was sent directly to North Africa in April of 1943, after the successful conclusion of Operation Torch, the Allied invasion of North Africa. There the pilots of the 99th refined their flying and gunnery techniques before being assigned to combat duty. The 99th flew in combat in North Africa and the Mediterranean Theater for several months. The next, much larger, group of Tuskegee-trained pilots was assigned to the 332nd Fighter Group, but instead of being sent directly to a combat theater, as the 99th had been, they were sent to airfields in the United States to practice their flying and gunnery skills. The 100th was the first of three squadrons assigned to the 332nd Pursuit Group, all of which were manned by black pilots; the other two squadrons in the group were the 301st and 302nd Fighter Squadrons. In the spring of 1943, shortly after the 99th Fighter Squadron was dispatched to North Africa, the pilots and ground support men of the 332nd Fighter Group were assigned to Selfridge Field, located twenty miles northeast of Detroit. Soon after their arrival at Selfridge, most of the black pilots and enlisted men were sent to an army airfield farther north, at Oscoda, Michigan, to practice their gunnery and bombing skills and complete their operational training. The training program at Oscoda was conducted from April to December of 1943.
Most historical accounts of the Tuskegee Airmen mention the training conducted at Oscoda briefly, if at all, suggesting that the bulk of training was conducted at Selfridge Field. However, the combat training conducted at Oscoda was extended, intensive, and thorough. The men who trained at Oscoda occupied field facilities for extensive periods of time during their training; they were assigned to the field at Oscoda, they took off from the field at Oscoda, they flew their gunnery missions in the local area, and they returned to land at Oscoda. In addition, most of the elements of the 96th Service Group, a support group with units consisting of African-American enlisted men, were assigned to the army flying field at Oscoda for the full nine-month period to provide administrative and maintenance assistance for the men involved in flying operations there.
Most of the men who were sent to Oscoda remained at the field for weeks at a time, the final group of men leaving Michigan in December of 1943, when the three squadrons of the 332nd Fighter Group, the 100th, the 301st, and the 302nd, were deployed to the European war zone. Even though Selfridge Field was the operational center of the units assigned to the Group, and Oscoda was referred to as a “sub-base” of Selfridge during this period, it could be safely said that Oscoda was the real training base for the men of the 332nd Fighter Group, not Selfridge Field. The story of the training of these African-American pilots and their support personnel at Oscoda deserves to be better and more completely known.
Flight Training at Tuskegee
Soon after Congress passed the Selective Service Act of 1940, which was intended to end racial discrimination in selection of recruits for the Armed Forces, the War Department announced the establishment of the 99th Pursuit Squadron. The 99th was officially activated at Chanute Field, Illinois, on March 22, 1941, and was intended to consist of African-American pilots and support personnel. Because there were as yet no African-American pilots, the squadron initially consisting of a few white officers and enlisted men. The Army then took steps to establish a flying training program for African-Americans. Six institutions were selected to offer Civilian Pilot Training Programs (CPTP) for African-Americans: Tuskegee Institute, Howard University, West Virginia State College, Delaware State College, North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College, and Hampton Institute. The CPTP was administered by civilians, not military personnel, and its goal was to prepare American men as potential pilots in the military forces, if and when America should be involved in the war. General Hap Arnold initiated the CPTP plan early in 1940, to avoid a shortage of pilots like that which had occurred when America entered World War I. Arnold expected that the European war would eventually involve American military forces, and he did not want the American military to lack qualified aviators when it did.
Unwilling to integrate black pilot trainees with white trainees, the Army determined to establish a military flight training base at one of the CPTP locations serving black pilots. The decision narrowed to Hampton Roads or Tuskegee. On April 19, 1941, Eleanor Roosevelt, a staunch supporter of equal rights for African-Americans, visited Tuskegee Institute. When she asked “Can negroes really fly airplanes?” she was invited to go for a ride in a Piper J-3 Cub, one of the small training aircraft on the field, flown by a black pilot, Charles “Chief” Anderson. A photo taken at that moment shows a smiling Eleanor Roosevelt sitting in the back of the Piper Cub with Chief Anderson at the controls of the aircraft.
The first class started flight training at Tuskegee three months later; this class included Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., son of the first black army officer to achieve the rank of general; Davis was the first black aviator to solo an airplane in the military training program at Tuskegee. From that date until March 23, 1946, sixty pilot training classes were conducted at Tuskegee, which graduated nearly 1000 pilots. The program at Tuskegee benefitted from the willing participation of the cadre of white officers who conducted the training, foremost among whom was its commanding officer, Colonel Noel Parrish. Many of the men who were part of the first seventeen classes, those who graduated after November of 1942 but prior to August of 1943, became part of the 332nd Fighter Group, and were assigned to one of the three squadrons that that were a part of the 332nd Group, the 100th Fighter Squadron, the 301st Fighter Squadron, and the 302nd Fighter Squadron.
The Development of the 332nd Fighter Group at Tuskegee and its Transfer to Selfridge Field
On 13 October 1941, the Army Air Forces activated the 332nd Pursuit Group. This action occurred six months after the formation of the 99th Pursuit Squadron and two months before the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor. Its initial commanding officer was Major (later Lieutenant Colonel) Sam Westbrook, a white West Point graduate. However, because all of the first graduating Tuskegee pilots had been assigned to the newly formed 99th Pursuit Squadron, the 332nd remained largely a skeleton unit, with only a few enlisted men placed in the unit for administrative duties. The 100th Pursuit Squadron, the first squadron to be assigned to the 332nd Pursuit Group, was established according to orders issued on 27 December 1941 and 19 February 1942. (Later in 1942 all Pursuit designations were changed to Fighter designations, and the 332nd became the 332nd Fighter Group and the 100th Pursuit Squadron became the 100th Fighter Squadron.) By the end of December 1942 the manning strength of the 100th Fighter Squadron had increased from one officer and fifteen enlisted white men to 75 officers and 934 enlisted men, of whom the great majority were black.
During 1943 the 332nd Fighter Group and its associated squadrons were transformed from skeleton units to combat-ready units. On 15 January 1943, the emblem of the 332nd Fighter Group was approved. The central image of the unit patch was a black panther breathing fire, a patch design that was generally preferred over the other squadron patch designs. On that date 1st Lt Frederick E. Miles, a non-flying officer, was assigned as commanding officer of the 301st Fighter Squadron, the second fighter squadron assigned to the Group. On 26 January 1st Lt Mac Ross was assigned as commanding officer of the 100th Fighter Squadron, and the 366th and 367th Service Squadrons and the 43rd Medical Support Platoon were assigned to the 96th Air Service Group; their tasks were to provide support services for the fighter squadrons of the 332nd Fighter Group. At this time these units were located at Tuskegee Airfield. The second and third squadrons assigned to the 332nd Fighter Group were the 301st and 302nd Fighter Squadrons. Much later, after the Group was assigned to a combat theater in Europe, the 99th Fighter Squadron officially joined the Group as well.
By the middle of March, 1943, the number of pilots and enlisted men at Tuskegee had grown significantly. The men of the 99th Fighter Squadron had been waiting for further training since they had graduated from their pilot training classes (eleven classes of pilots—75 men—had graduated in the previous twelve months). To help with training, a number of P-40 aircraft had been delivered to the airfield at Tuskegee, where the men who had completed their initial flight training flew them to become familiar with the higher performance fighter aircraft they could expect to fly in combat. The members of the 99th trained in these P-40s, flying them at Tuskegee and, temporarily, at Dale Mabry Airfield, near Tampa, Florida, in January. Due to its reluctance to locate African-American military personnel on military fields with white units, the Army Air Force had not identified any other military field to which the African-American airmen could be assigned, and as other pilots continued to graduate and recently trained enlisted men arrived at Tuskegee, the numbers of men soon exceeded the capability of the facilities at Tuskegee to accommodate them. The military authorities had no choice but to send the units to which the men had been assigned to other locations.
As a result, early in April, the 99th Fighter Squadron departed Tuskegee for its new assignment overseas, in French Morocco, where it was eventually attached to the 33rd Fighter Group in the Twelfth Air Force. Because the men in the unit had not been able to complete their combat training in the continental United States, the squadron, under the leadership of Lt Col Benjamin Davis, was directed to conduct its own training in North Africa before being assigned combat missions. To avoid a similar deficiency in training, and to alleviate crowded conditions at Tuskegee, the pilots and enlisted men in the 100th, 301st, and 302nd Fighter Squadrons were sent to Selfridge Field in Michigan.
On 15 March 1943, the 403rd Fighter Squadron was activated at Selfridge Field, located northeast of Detroit. This squadron consisted of white personnel and white pilots; the unit was given the task of training the pilots of the 332nd Fighter Group after they arrived at Selfridge Field, and later at Oscoda. The 332nd received a large number of recently trained enlisted maintenance men on 21 March, increasing the 332nd personnel strength to such a size that there was no room for the men at Tuskegee, and the support units began to be transferred to Selfridge Field. On 26 March 1943, the first members of the ground support units of the 332nd Fighter Group and its three squadrons boarded a train at Tuskegee, which carried the men to Detroit. The pilots assigned to the 332nd Fighter Group flew P-40 aircraft from Tuskegee to Selfridge Field on 28 March. On 4 April, the men in the units of the 96th Service Group completed their move to Selfridge Field. On 5 April Lieutenant George L. Knox replaced Lieutenant Mac Ross as Commanding Officer of the 100th Fighter Squadron; Mac Ross, a member of the first class to graduate from Tuskegee, was later assigned as Group operations officer. The last troop train carrying the remaining members of the 332nd arrived at Selfridge on 12 April.
Once arrived at Selfridge, the pilots of the 100th Fighter Squadron immediately began to investigate their new surroundings from the air, flying their P-40 aircraft low over the city of Detroit, announcing their presence with a display of aerial acrobatics that pleased some citizens and displeased others. They also began to investigate the social life of the black community of Detroit, which was happy to accommodate the arrival of their flying black brothers of the Army Air Forces. However, the atmosphere at Selfridge Field was not as cordial, as the men were denied the use of the white officers’ club and were told to modify a utility building for use as their club, an action that did not please the pilots. In addition, the base commander restricted the actions of the men while on base, limiting the facilities they could visit.
Shortly after their arrival at Selfridge Field, the pilots of the 100th Fighter Squadron were assigned to Oscoda Army Air Field (OAAF) to begin their combat and survival training. On 12 April 1943, a little over two weeks after the first pilots of the 332nd Fighter Group arrived at Selfridge, and just as the final contingent of ground support personnel arrived at Selfridge, part of the Group moved from Selfridge Field to OAAF. On 4 May 1943, the 403rd Fighter Squadron, the unit designed to provide combat flight instruction to the pilots of the 332nd Group, moved to OAAF, and one day later the 301st Fighter Squadron transferred to the airfield at Oscoda as well. The Headquarters of the Group remained at Selfridge until 21 May; it returned to Selfridge on 9 July 1943, when the majority of the pilots in the 100th Fighter Squadron had completed their training. The 302nd Fighter Squadron had insufficient numbers of support personnel, so only the pilots of that unit moved to Oscoda. Thus, by the first week of May, the bulk of the men and aircraft had moved from Selfridge to Oscoda.
On 5 May 1943, approximately two weeks after the first contingent of Tuskegee airmen arrived at Selfridge, a bizarre incident occurred involving the Selfridge Field commander, Colonel William Colman. Colman shot and wounded a black driver who had been dispatched late at night to drive Colman from his office to his quarters. The driver, Private William R. McRae, was wounded when the colonel shot him twice with his pistol. When the incident was first announced in the press, it was perceived as a racially motivated action. The colonel was inebriated at the time and later said that he could remember nothing of the incident. He was subsequently court-martialed and dismissed from the service. McRae, who recovered, was a member of the 44th Base Service Squadron, not a member of the group of Tuskegee airmen, but the incident added to an atmosphere of racial tension at the field and the nearby community. Some thought that the move to Oscoda was made because of the increased racial tensions caused by the Colman shooting, but in fact the move to Oscoda was underway before the incident occurred.
The pilots and support personnel were sent to Oscoda for one simple reason: there were no gunnery or combat training areas in the Selfridge Field area. The gunnery and bombing ranges at Oscoda had been used by the flying personnel assigned to Selfridge since 1924. The men of the 332nd Fighter Group were sent to Oscoda because that field had always served as the location for gunnery and combat training for all combat units assigned to Selfridge Field, not because of racial unease in the Detroit area.
The Army Air Field at Oscoda
After September 1939, when the war in Europe started, the training program at Camp Skeel intensified, as more modern aircraft were brought into the Army Air Corps, and the threat of a potential enemy became more real. Fliers stationed at Selfridge Field increasingly used the Camp Skeel facilities for gunnery practice and cold-weather operations. After the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, construction efforts at Camp Skeel increased significantly. During the winter of 1941 and 1942, additional facilities were built at Camp Skeel, including two runways, a taxiway, and an apron, all built of soil cement, a mixture of ground soil and cement. Prior to the construction of these runways and taxiway, the landing and taxi area had consisted of bare soil. The old buildings were torn down and more modern buildings were constructed. Additional training began to be conducted at an airfield at Alpena, forty miles farther north, as well.
After the attack at Pearl Harbor, a second phase of construction started in July of 1942 and included a sewage disposal plant, water reservoir and water mains, a centralized electrical distribution system, and over sixty operations and support buildings. In addition, the two runways built the previous winter were replaced with three concrete runways and concrete taxiways and parking ramp. On 19 June 1942, operational control of Camp Skeel was given to 3rd Air Force, and in August of 1942 the field was officially renamed Oscoda Army Air Field, a name it held throughout World War II. The mission of the field was to provide operational training, primarily tactical flight training and gunnery practice for units about to be sent to active theaters of war.
A third phase of construction started in December of 1942; in this phase a fire station and utility yard were built and additional hospital and maintenance facilities were added. By the spring of 1943 the field facilities had improved significantly, and it was fully operational and ready to receive its first training units. The first unit to be assigned at Oscoda for wartime training was the 332nd Fighter Group, the first members of which arrived in the middle of April, 1943.
If the black airmen thought that racial attitudes would improve as they were assigned to more northern locations, they were quickly disillusioned. As soon as they learned of the plan to train black airmen at the airfield at Oscoda, the members of the Board of Supervisors of Iosco County (the county in which the villages of Oscoda and Au Sable and the neighboring town of East Tawas were located) dispatched a message to the War Department requesting that the contingent of airmen from the 332nd Fighter Group be transferred away from the air base at Oscoda, because having “Negroes at the base would create social and racial problems in . . . a community where no persons of the Negro race have ever lived, and where there are no facilities for the entertainment of such colored persons.” It seems evident that in its statement that there were “no facilities” for the black airmen that the Board was thinking of facilities separate from those used by the white population.
Michigan Governor Harry Kelly and Senators Homer Ferguson and Arthur Vandenberg all voiced their opposition to the appeal. Governor Kelly stated that he was “not in sympathy” with the request, because it was “definitely contrary to the war effort.” Senator Ferguson said that he was “surprised that the people in Iosco County would think of such a thing,” and Senator Vandenberg, speaking more bluntly, called the people of Iosco County “foolish and unpatriotic,” adding that the request was “disgraceful.” The request of the Iosco Board of Supervisors was not approved; the black airmen stayed, and their training program began.
Coming from the fully segregated South, the Tuskegee Airmen were undoubtedly dismayed, but probably not surprised, to discover that racial prejudice could exist in the far North as well. They had to content themselves with the idea that they had a more important enemy to confront in Europe.
In spite of the formal complaint made by the Iosco County Board of Supervisors, apparently the men were well received by the majority of the local citizens. The 332nd Group correspondent, Sergeant Burt Jackson, writing in the 22 April edition of the Selfridge Field News, stated that the men assigned to train at Oscoda “are pleased that the only thing that is frigid is the weather, for the people of the region have been more than hospitable. And more and more of the fellows seem to be singing that popular song, ‘This is Worth Fighting For.’”
Combat Training at Oscoda
Soon after he arrived at Selfridge from Tuskegee, George Watson, one of the black enlisted men in the 366th Service Squadron, which was part of the 96th Service Group, was disappointed to learn that he and his fellow squadronmates would have little time to enjoy the social life in Detroit. Seven days after they arrived at Selfridge, they were directed to move north to Oscoda, to “Indian country,” as Watson called it, as part of the advance party to prepare the field for the intensive training program that would be conducted there for the remainder of the year.
Watson and his fellow airmen left Selfridge Field early in the morning of April 12th in a convoy of more than 100 vehicles, carrying members of the 332nd Fighter Group and the 96th Service Group. They stopped at a country road intersection near Bay City for lunch. They arrived in Oscoda later the same day, “cold, tired, and hungry.” Wearied after their uncomfortable ride in military trucks, they were provided a warm meal that lifted their spirits a little, and then were “bedded down” in the recently constructed huts. Their first task was to construct a rifle range: they located an appropriate site in the woods on the west side of the field, and, according to Watson’s account, “from morning till night the sharp cries of ‘timber’ could be heard.” Initially told that they would be there for only thirty days, they were dismayed to discover that the entire Group would soon be joining them for what was clearly going to be a longer stay. Within a week of their arrival, they were ready to begin their training.
An illustrated article published in Click Magazine, dated September 1943, featured the training activities of the black airmen shortly after they arrived at Oscoda. It described the air base at Oscoda as being “unique among Army posts” due to its location on “Lake Huron’s sandy pine shores.” The airfield at Oscoda was definitely unique among army posts; its remote northern location offered experiences not likely to be encountered at flying fields in the south. One of the pilots, Vernon Haywood, who graduated from the Tuskegee flying training program in April of 1943, recalled that “the deer had to be chased off the field” before flying activities could begin in the morning, and the presence of more threatening wild life could complicate a late evening trip to the toilet: “Bears roaming through the camp at night would often cause the most aggressive fighter pilot to unashamedly inquire of his cabin mates if anyone else needed to make a run” to the field’s latrine and bathing facility. Curtis Robinson, Vernon Haywood’s Tuskegee classmate, who also trained at Oscoda, said “the place was really like a “recreational ‘escape,’ having all types of [vacation] cabins and a recreational beach.”
The Click article indicated the activities of the men when they were not flying:
Off-duty, they ‘shoot the breeze’ in the pilots’ room, in the two-bed ‘hutments,’ the mess hall. Or they pile into cars and go to one of the nearest villages for a movie or bowling. The quiet resort towns have welcomed the Oscoda men with warm sincerity.
The nearest villages were the twin towns of Oscoda and Au Sable, two miles east of the field on the Lake Huron shore; Oscoda was situated on the north side of the mouth of the Au Sable River, and Au Sable was situated on the south side. East Tawas and Tawas City were located about fifteen miles farther south, along the scenic Tawas Bay shoreline. The largest major cities to the south were Bay City and Saginaw, and the largest city to the north was Alpena. Given the inhospitable attitude towards the pilots and ground support personnel of the 332nd Fighter Group reflected in the message sent to the War Department by the Iosco County Board of Supervisors, the article’s statement that the men were “welcomed” with “warm sincerity” in the nearby towns may be seen as the unidentified writer’s attempt to present the racial situation in a more positive perspective.
The first pilots to be trained at Oscoda were the members of the 100th Fighter Squadron, which had the most complete complement of fliers. At this point the 100th was led by Lieutenant George Knox, from Indianapolis; his Operations Officer was Lieutenant Elwood Driver, from Trenton, New Jersey. Some of the other squadron pilots who trained at Oscoda included Lieutenant Edward Gleed, from Lawrence, Kansas; Lieutenants Peter Verwayne, Walter Palmer, and Wilmeth Sidat-Singh, of New York City; Lieutenant Wilmore Leonard, of Salisbury, Maryland; and Lieutenant Robert Deiz, of Portland, Oregon. Other black pilots were Lieutenants Charles Williams, Henry Perry, Armour McDaniel, James Polkinghorne, Edward Toppins, Nathaniel Hill, Quitman Walker, Harold Sawyer, Ulysses Taylor, Lawrence Dickson, James Carter, Clarence Allen, Vernon Haywood, Curtis Robinson, Leroy Bowman, and Jerome Edwards.
George Knox, the squadron commander, was a member of the third class to graduate from Tuskegee, in May of 1942; Deiz, Leonard, Toppins, and Perry were members of the sixth Tuskegee flying class (September, 1942); Driver and Hill had graduated in the seventh class (October, 1942); Edwards had been in the eighth class (November 1942); Gleed and Verwayne had been in the ninth class (December 1942); McDaniel and Walker had been in the tenth class (January, 1943); Polkinghorne was a member of the eleventh class (February 1943); Sidat-Singh, Allen, Bowman, and Dickson were members of the twelfth class (March 1943); Williams, Taylor, Carter, Haywood, Robinson, and Sawyer were the most recent graduates—they had been members of the thirteenth class (April 1943). As other pilots completed their basic training program at Tuskegee throughout the summer and early fall of 1943, they were assigned to Selfridge and Oscoda as well.
Mac Ross, who initially had been the commanding officer of the 100th Fighter Squadron, was now serving as the Operations Officer of the 332nd Fighter Group, but flew as one of the pilots in the 100th Fighter Squadron. He, along with Benjamin O. Davis, the first black general in the United States Air Force, had been a member of the first graduating class at Tuskegee (March 1942).
The primary elements of training for the men at Oscoda included gunnery and bombing practice, in which they attacked ground targets at the west edge of the airfield, floating targets in Lake Huron, and shot at tow targets extending behind tow aircraft. The pilots also practiced formation flying, combat tactics, and night flying. The enlisted men were required to run a newly constructed obstacle course. For the ground support men, mostly enlisted men and a few supervising officers, it meant developing aircraft maintenance skills under field conditions, far from centralized repair facilities. And for both officers and enlisted men, it meant accustoming themselves to living in primitive operating circumstances, of the kind they would experience when they reached their combat locations. According to Henry Moore, one of the aircraft crew chiefs in the 302nd Fighter Squadron, the field at Oscoda was “set up to simulate the conditions the men would be facing when they landed in Italy, [the men living in] tents and aircraft parked on steel matting, . . . where the meals were served in an open field and under the trees between the tent areas.” One enlisted man, Elvin Thomas, remembered seeing deer and bear and “lots of snow in the wintertime.” The training program was also intended to develop a sense of unit cohesion among all of the men in the unit, pilots as well as ground crew, officers and enlisted men both.
Throughout the summer of 1943 the pilots flew the P-40F and P-40N models of the Curtiss “Warhawk,” a single-seat fighter first flown operationally in 1940; by 1943 it was largely relegated to a training role. Accidents began to occur almost as soon as the pilots of the 100th Fighter Squadron arrived at Oscoda. On 17 April, shortly after the 100th had arrived at Oscoda, Mac Ross was involved in a ground accident. Two days later, Armour McDaniel was involved in a ground accident, and two days after that, on 21 April, Peter Verwayne was involved in another accident. Henry Perry was involved in two accidents in the last days of the month, on 23 and 29 April. On 1 May, Edward Toppins was involved in an accident, and on 6 May James Polkinghorne had an accident. Although no information is available about the causes of these accidents, they probably resulted from the challenges of learning to fly the P-40, a much more powerful aircraft than the aircraft the pilots had been flying in their training program at Tuskegee.
One young Oscoda boy, Jerry Wagner, whose family lived near the entrance to the airfield during the war, had many opportunities to observe aircraft taking off and landing. He later recalled that although the pilots were “excellent flyers, they had problems landing the aircraft.” Wagner says that he “witnessed many of these smoke- and spark-filled skids down the runway” as he sat on his bicycle at one of his favorite observation spots overlooking the field. The P-40, the primary training aircraft, was a “tail-dragger” aircraft; that is, it featured two main landing gear which extended from the wings of the aircraft, and a tail wheel. There was a relatively narrow distance between the two main landing gear of the P-40, and if the pilot lost directional control while landing, it would be easy for the aircraft to start spinning around, performing what was referred to as a “ground loop.” One experienced P-40 pilot related that the P-40N could be a difficult airplane to land, especially in a crosswind; if the pilot wasn’t careful he could “lose control in [a] high wind during a landing” and “cartwheel around.” If an aircraft started to “cartwheel around” during a landing, it would probably scrape a wingtip on the ground, generating the kind of “spark-filled skid” that Wagner observed.
It is tempting to blame the inexperience of the pilots for the unusually high number of accidents that occurred in April and May of 1943; however, the aircraft themselves may have contributed to the problem. The liquid-cooled Allison engine could quickly overheat if the aircraft did not become airborne as soon as possible after starting, and there were other engine problems as well. As one black maintenance man stationed at Oscoda reported later,
In a few cases, we had to hold [water] hoses on those old Allisons [engines] due to overheating while warming up. It was a shame to think that our boys were expected to fly those things. It was all my men could do to keep them airworthy. We lived in continual fear that someone wouldn’t return due to a failure [of the aircraft] beyond our control. When they returned from a flight, it appeared quite frequently as though they’d flown through an oil storm [a reference to oil streaks on the fuselage behind the engine].
The unit experienced its first fatality at Oscoda on 7 May 1943, three days after the arrival of the 403rd Fighter Squadron, whose pilots were supposed to train the pilots of the 332nd. Jerome Edwards was the first pilot to lose his life when his engine failed on take-off at the airfield at Oscoda, and it “plowed into some trees.” He “banged his head against the gunsight, and was killed instantly.” Two days later, on 9 May, a second fatality occurred, when Lt Wilmeth Sidat-Singh’s aircraft crashed into Lake Huron.
Sidat-Singh and fellow pilot Charles I. Williams were flying a training mission over Lake Huron, east of East Tawas, when Sidat-Singh’s engine failed. Sidat-Singh bailed out of his P-40 and deployed his parachute. Williams stated that Sidat-Singh failed to release his parachute before he struck the water. Williams continued to circle overhead, hoping to see some sign of life, but he was forced to land at the airfield at Oscoda when his fuel ran low. Sidat-Singh’s body was not recovered until June 26th, nearly seven weeks after the accident occurred. When his body was recovered, there was no evidence that his body had been dragged under the water by the parachute, and it appeared that he may have released himself from the parachute before he hit the water. He may have dropped from too great a height and struck the water with such force that he was temporarily stunned and was pulled under the water by the weight of his water-logged clothes.
The loss of Sidat-Singh was an especially devastating blow not only to the other pilots but to the larger African-American community as well, and news of his death was widely reported in the black press. Sidat-Singh had been one of the more popular and more famous of the black airmen; the stepson of a Manhattan physician from India, Sidat-Singh was an athlete with exceptional skills. He had demonstrated great prowess on the football field at Syracuse University in the late 1930s. According to one account, Sidat-Singh’s passing abilities and poise impressed Grantland Rice, one of the top sports writers of the time, who thought he was as good as such well-known professional football players as Sid Luckman and Sammy Baugh. Sidat-Singh was an excellent basketball player as well, and he was one of the stars on the Lichtman Bears, a semi-professional basketball team based in Washington D.C. With Sidat-Singh as a high-scoring guard, the team compiled a record of 22 wins and no losses during the winter of 1941-1942. But after the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor, Sidat-Singh wanted to contribute more to the war effort than play basketball, and he first joined the Washington police force, and then signed up to fly with the Army Air Forces; he wanted to become one of the first African-Americans to fly in combat. Because he was such an exceptional athlete, many who knew him believed that he should have been able to extricate himself from his disabled aircraft when it crashed. But such was not the case. His body was eventually interred in the Arlington National Cemetery.
Soon after Sidat-Singh’s accident, 332nd Group Commander Colonel Sam Westbrook temporarily grounded all planes in the unit, requesting new planes be assigned. On 16 May, Colonel Westbrook was replaced as Group Commander by Colonel Robert Selway, and Westbrook was reassigned as the Group’s executive officer. Although the reassignments were described as “routine,” it seems likely that Westbrook was held partially accountable for the string of accidents that had occurred in the previous three weeks. Like Westbrook, Selway was a white officer and a West Point graduate.
The article in Click Magazine includes a brief narrative account of the training activities conducted at Oscoda, and features photos of several of the pilots, including squadron commander George Knox, operations officer Elwood Driver, A Flight commander Robert Diez, and five other pilots. It also includes a photograph of Jerome Edwards making a firing pass on a ground target in his P-40, indicating that the photos in the article were taken early in May, immediately after the arrival of the pilots at the field at Oscoda and just before the death of Edwards. The article does not comment on the deaths of either Edwards or Sidat-Singh or on any of the lesser accidents that occurred.
Due to the arrival of new pilots from the Tuskegee training program and the transfer of others to the 99th Fighter Squadron in North Africa, there were numerous personnel changes. On 21 May, the Headquarters of the 332nd Fighter Group moved to Oscoda, joining the other units of the Group that had moved to OAAF on 12 April. On 29 May, Lieutenant Robert B. Tresville replaced Lieutenant William T. Mattison as commanding officer of the 302nd Fighter Squadron. By the end of May, the number of personnel assigned to the 332nd Fighter Group totaled 110 officers and over 1000 enlisted men. If an average of one-tenth of the men remained at Selfridge Field during the training program, the African-American population at Oscoda during the height of the training program would have totaled nearly 1000 men, the largest number of airmen that had ever been assigned to Oscoda for training at any time up to that point. On 10 June, the 96th Service Group officially moved from Selfridge Field to OAAF. The 96th Service Group included all of the ground support functions needed to support the personnel activities of the pilots and maintenance men in the squadrons.
On June 16th, the third and last fatal accident directly associated with the training program at Oscoda occurred when Nathaniel Hill, piloting a BT-13, a two-seat training aircraft, crashed into Lake Huron near Oscoda. The men had apparently been flying a weather observation flight and Hill became disoriented while flying in low cloud and poor visibility. Both Hill and his passenger, Lieutenant Luther Blakeney, a weather officer assigned to the 100th Fighter Squadron, died in the crash. The news of Hill’s death arrived at the Hill family residence in Washington DC on the same day that his parents received a letter from their son, in which he stated that he had “just been chosen as one of the eight to go overseas to help those flyers that are already flying [in the 99th Fighter Squadron].” In his letter he wrote that “all of us are willing to go and we feel qualified to take care of ourselves whenever and wherever we go. I am proud that I have been chosen to go.” Hill’s comments indicate that in addition to training pilots in the 332nd, pilots were also being trained as replacements for the pilots of the 99th Fighter Squadron, as pilots from the 99th completed their tours of duty and returned to the United States.
On 20 and 21 June, nearly two months after training had begun at Oscoda, race riots occurred in Detroit, in which 34 people died, including 25 whites and 9 blacks, and 670 people were injured. Although the rioting had nothing to do with the black airmen stationed at Selfridge, Colonel Selway ordered all black airmen restricted to the field, and placed white guards around the black airmen’s compounds to ensure that no one attempted to venture into Detroit. Although many of the black airmen resented Selway’s actions, it may be that he wanted to ensure that no airman was caught up in the Detroit turmoil. Fortunately, many of the 332nd Group’s pilots and ground crew were in Oscoda at the time.
The Black Training Experience at Oscoda
That the pilots enjoyed and benefitted from their flying training experiences at Oscoda is evident in the comments many of them made later. Walter Downs, who had graduated from primary flight training at Tuskegee in February of 1943, related that at Oscoda he and his fellow pilots “did a lot of acrobatics and succeeded in thinking up tricks not in the book.” He recalled that local farmers soon began to complain about aircraft buzzing their farms at low altitudes, causing their china dishes to fall to the floor and disrupting the chickens’ egg-laying habits. In one particularly memorable episode, he and his fellow pilots decided to make a low pass on a local train: “One morning I was out with a flight, and it struck us to play peek-a-boo with a train. We’d fly straight at the engine and then pull up” and then perform “all kinds of loops just in front of the engine. We enjoyed ourselves immensely, though I suspect the engineer was not nearly as delighted with our antics as we were.”
The local rail line was part of the Detroit and Mackinac Railway; the D&M track ran past the eastern edge of the airfield on a north-south line. The low-flying antics of the black pilots over the train were quickly reported to the field, and the price Downs and the other pilots paid for their actions was swiftly exacted:
Our commanding officer, who had news of our performance before we got out of our planes . . . chewed us out in the proper military manner; he didn’t miss a syllable, comma, or period. Our punishment was to walk around the entire base with parachutes on our backs until he gave the order for us to stop. He halted the march about our second time around. We didn’t mind the walking because we had really enjoyed playing dippsy-doodle with the train. But we didn’t repeat it.
Downs emphasized the significance and scope of the training conducted at Oscoda, stating that the airfield at Oscoda “became home to a large part of the 332nd Fighter Group.”
Jerry Wagner recalled what it was like when the African-American pilots trained at Oscoda. Never having seen any African-Americans before, he was fascinated by the habits of the black airmen, and he was especially impressed with their flying abilities. The pilots, Wagner says, “acquired a reputation for superb flying and gunnery,” adding:
As I was an astute observer of aircraft and flying techniques, I held their daredevil ability in high esteem. If they wanted to roll the aircraft, they rolled it. If they wanted to snap-roll the airplane, they snap-rolled it. These flyers did their own thing. Often they liked to fly in small formations, wingtip to wingtip, right down on the deck. Then they would be going straight up to become just specks in the blue. Between the clouds they would dog-fight with a skill and precision that was spellbinding to see. This squadron was probably the most unorthodox that was ever stationed here. They liked to fly their airplanes in every position but level.
It is easy to imagine the sense of freedom that the black pilots must have felt, finding themselves in a position to control a powerful single-engine aircraft in an environment where white society did not control their every move.
The African-American newspapers followed the progress of the black pilots with keen interest. One account that appeared in several newspapers told how the pilots were going about the task of “achieving A-1 efficiency in flying, shooting, mechanics, and theory, so that they will be ready to take their places besides flying comrades already in the thick of the battle on fighting fronts.” The article was accompanied by several photographs of the black pilots and ground crew members engaged in various activities at the Oscoda airfield, including loading ammunition into a P-40, cleaning .50 caliber machine guns, and standing inspection. One photo showed four pilots, Lieutenants Wendell Pruitt, Andrew Maples, John Gibson, and Milton Hall, walking off the flight line after completing their gunnery training.
One black pilot who trained at Oscoda, Curtis Robinson, described in some detail how gunnery practice was conducted: “After our planes, which had three .50 caliber machine guns in each wing, were loaded with color-coded ammunition, we would start our practice.” The tow plane pulled a long cloth target behind it. Once it was in position, flying along the Lake Huron shore,
The rest of us pursued the plane and shot at the target. When pilots fired, we shot all six of our machine guns and aimed through a sight that was made of glass. Every fourth bullet from our guns was a tracer bullet that would light up and show us whether or not we were hitting the target . . . . After the [tow] plane dropped the target following our runs, ground crews would retrieve it to see what color the bullet holes were.
The instructors would then count the number of bullet holes of different colors to determine the accuracy of shooting of each pilot. Robinson stated that other flight training included dive-bombing and strafing at ground targets.
Unlike the major city newspapers, which were read by white readers, and which generally ignored the progress (or even existence) of black military units and personnel, the African-American newspapers, especially the Pittsburgh Courier, followed the activities of all black military units, especially the flying units, with intense interest, reporting on the movements, difficulties, accidents, and successes of the black airmen. In their wartime reporting activities, the African-American press provided two important functions for black readers: to develop a sense of pride in the black community as a result of the achievements of the black soldiers, sailors, and airmen in the effort to win the war, and to report on any incidents that appeared to reflect the harmful effects of segregation.
In spite of the initial official reluctance to accept the presence of black airmen in some local communities, the town of Oscoda soon provided entertainment for the men assigned at the field. One report in the Selfridge Field News, dated 3 June 1943, stated that the citizens of Oscoda put on a “Soiree” for the men at the field:
Under the leadership of Mayor Lloyd D. McCuaig of Oscoda and a committee of 14 women headed by Mrs. George Beard, the townspeople invited the soldiers to the local USO club, a converted town hall. They had to save up ration points for weeks in order to serve baked ham, escalloped potatoes, and 15 cakes. Two Indian women, Miss Helen George and her mother, walked 10 miles into town to volunteer their services.
The Detroit USO assisted with the event by providing three busloads of girls driven up to Oscoda especially for the event. The 105 girls on the buses were provided by the Lucy Thurman YMCA in Detroit, a facility for black women that had been established in 1933.
During the summer, personnel changes and additions continued. On 29 June 1943, Elwood Driver replaced George L. Knox as commanding officer of the 100th Fighter Squadron. And on 6 July 1943, Driver was replaced by Robert Tresville, newly promoted to the rank of Captain. In July the 332nd Fighter Group received a large number of enlisted men who had been trained in a variety of ground maintenance tasks: airplane mechanics arrived from Buffalo, New York, and Chanute Field, Illinois. Armorers came from Buckley Field, Colorado; radar mechanics from Tomah, Wisconsin; and radio personnel from Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, and Camp Crowder, Missouri.
When the two-month training period ended, the squadrons rotated back to Selfridge Field. On July 9th and 10th, the Headquarters of the 332nd Fighter Group and the 100th Fighter Squadron, moved from Oscoda back to Selfridge, but the 96th Service Group remained at Oscoda. The 403rd Fighter Squadron, whose task was to train new pilots, also moved back to Selfridge, but the 301st and 302nd remained at Oscoda to continue training. The 301st and 302nd continued to receive new pilots as they graduated from the training program at Tuskegee.
Although the number of flying accidents was reduced as the program continued, accidents and incidents occurred. Robert Dean, a white enlisted man who was assigned to OAAF in 1943 as a surgical technician, recalled several incidents in which the black officers and enlisted men were hospitalized for injuries or illnesses. Dean recalled treating one black officer who had been involved in an air-to-air accident who came into the hospital “bloodied up” when the propeller of another aircraft broke through the canopy of his aircraft. Fortunately, both aircraft landed safely and both pilots survived. Dean also recalled a black maintenance sergeant who had been badly burned when he attempted to clean his woolen uniform with 100 octane aviation fuel, which caught fire. One black enlisted man died from the effects of a ruptured internal organ, probably an appendix, before he could be moved to more sophisticated hospital facilities near Detroit.
The pilots continued training in P-40 aircraft until late September, when the P-40 was replaced with the P-39 Airacobra. Early in October an “Airacobra College” was established at Selfridge Field “to give a thorough schooling in P-39 Airacobras to pilots and ground crews of the 332nd Fighter Group” assigned to Selfridge and Oscoda. The “around-the-clock program for mechanics and flyers” was directed by Colonel Selway in an effort to standardize transition training into the new aircraft, probably to avoid having a series of accidents as the pilots transitioned into the new aircraft such as had occurred in April and May. The P-39 had a tricycle landing gear, with a nose wheel instead of a tail wheel, which made the aircraft easier to land than the tail-dragging P-40. As a result, the accident rate was reduced significantly; some pilots were killed in flying accidents, but these occurred in the Selfridge Field area, not at Oscoda. On 3 October the 403rd Fighter Squadron moved back to Oscoda from Selfridge. It was probably involved in providing training to the pilots who were now flying P-39s instead of P-40s.
The Arrival of Colonel Benjamin O. Davis, Jr.
In September, another significant event occurred, as Lieutenant Colonel Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., returned from Italy, where he had been the squadron commander of the 99th Fighter Squadron, to take command of the 332nd Fighter Group. Before he could take command, however, he was called to Washington DC, where he defended the success of the 99th Fighter Squadron in its combat performance in North Africa and Italy. An Army report submitted by Colonel William Momyer, who had been the commanding officer of the Group with which the 99th flew in North Africa, stated that the 99th had not performed as well as it should have, and that it and similar units staffed by African-American pilots should be assigned secondary roles in national defense. The report had been approved by every level of command through which it had passed, including Generals Edwin House, John Cannon, and Carl Spaatz, even though these officers had previously applauded the achievements of the 99th.
Davis, the son of an army general, was profoundly upset with the report, and testified before the War Department Committee on Special Troop Policies that the 99th “had performed as well as any new squadron, black or white, could be expected to perform in an unfamiliar environment.” The members of the committee agreed with Davis’ assessment and urged the army to reconsider any actions it might have been contemplating regarding assigning flying units manned by black officers and airmen to secondary defense roles. As a result, the Army Chief of Staff, General George Marshall, directed that a study be made of the performance of the 99th. This report concluded that “an examination of the record of the 99th Fighter Squadron reveals no significant general difference between this squadron and the balance of the P-40 squadrons in the Mediterranean Theatre of Operations.” The 99th was not removed from combat operations, and the other squadrons of the 332nd Fighter Group—the 100th, the 301st, and the 302nd—soon joined it in combat.
Having successfully defended the record of the 99th, Davis returned to Michigan early in October. He was officially installed as the Commanding Officer of the 332nd Fighter Group in a special ceremony on 11 October held at the Selfridge Officer’s Club, which had previously been designated as off-limits to black airmen. Special guests who attended the ceremony included Davis’ father, Brigadier General Benjamin O. Davis, Sr., the first black general in the U. S. Army; Colonel Robert Selway, Jr., outgoing Group commanding officer; Colonel William L. Boyd, Selfridge Field Post commander; and Major Harriet M. West, one of the two black majors in the Women’s Army Corps. Other officers attending the promotion ceremony were lieutenants George Knox, James Pugsley, Robert Tresville, Charles DeBow, Edward Gleed, Morris Johnston, Nelson Brooks, Vernon Punch, James Carter, and Ray Ware.
On 17 October, less than one week after Davis’ installation ceremony at the Selfridge Officers’ Club, Brigadier General Frank O’D. Hunter, commander of First Air Force, visited Selfridge on short notice. All black officers who were flying in the Selfridge area were instructed to return to the field immediately and land. Black officers were told to report to the field auditorium, where Hunter addressed the officers of the 332nd Group in a stern manner, stressing the need for discipline. As there was no stated reason for Hunter’s abrupt, forceful, and short-notice message to the black officers, it seems likely that it was his way of saying that the recent use of the Selfridge Officers’ Club for Colonel Davis’ ceremony was a one-time event, and that policies of segregated social facilities at Selfridge Field would continue. Hunter had just returned from England, where he had been serving under General Ira Eaker in the Eighth Air Force. He had taken command of First Air Force only two weeks before Davis’ promotion ceremony, and apparently was not pleased with the use of the Selfridge Field Officers’ Club as the site of a black officer’s promotion ceremony, even for so distinguished an officer as Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. Hunter continued to enforce his segregationist policies after the arrival of the 477th Bombardment Group in 1944.
After his arrival at Selfridge, Colonel Davis immediately began a personal familiarization program in the P-39, which he had not previously flown. He thought the P-39 was a “beautiful, small-looking fighter-bomber with a tight, crowded cockpit.” Because he was six feet, two inches tall, Davis had to squeeze himself into the cockpit: “my head rubbed against the canopy, and I had to keep my back bowed.” After his first familiarization flights in the P-39 at Selfridge, Davis “flew up to [the] gunnery camp at Oscoda, where I flew the strafing, dive-bombing, and skip bombing maneuvers I supposed would be our bread and butter in Europe.”
In October, the first full month in which the pilots of the 332nd flew the P-39, the weather turned colder, but in spite of the cold weather, flying training activities continued. In the winter weather, snow on the runway could cause a challenge. Clarence Dart, who completed his training at Tuskegee in November of 1943, was one of the last Tuskegee pilots to complete his combat training at Oscoda. He reported that the field at Oscoda “didn’t have very good snow removal systems,” and that landing on a snow-covered runway could be exciting: “if you weren’t lined up [with the center of the runway], [if] you were a little off line, next thing you know you would be going down the runway round and round.” “A lot of times,” he said, “we’d fly . . . in snowstorms,” adding that their “instrument training was very valuable.”
Recent graduates of the Tuskegee program were sent to train at Oscoda as the training period came to closure. Three of them, Roger Romine, Hubron Blackwell, and George Haley, were subjected to an especially intense winter training schedule in the P-39, and became the subjects of a wonderfully comic poem:
The 302nd worked like bees
To get their outfit overseas,
But none worked as long and hard as these–
Romine, Blackwell, Haley.
With frigid feet and fingertips,
Horseshoe spine and aching hips
Commanding colonels still plan trips
For Romine, Blackwell, Haley.
But the cold weather did not dampen the pilots’ enthusiasm for participating in extracurricular aerial activities. Lieutenant Walter Palmer, who had graduated from the Tuskegee program in June, 1943, was assigned to the 100th Fighter Squadron in the fall. After being checked out in the unit’s P-39s at Selfridge, he was transferred to Oscoda AAF to complete his combat training. At Oscoda, he participated in aerial and ground gunnery, cross-country flying, and formation flying. One of the pilots’ favorite activities was flying under bridges, and the largest major bridge nearest Oscoda was the Blue Water Bridge, which connected Port Huron, Michigan, with Point Edward, Canada. Built in 1938, its center span was 870 feet wide with a clearance of approximately 150 feet above the surface of the water. It would have been an obvious landmark as the pilots flew from Selfridge Field north along the St. Clair River to Port Huron, and then along the eastern shore of Lake Huron’s Michigan thumb region and across the Saginaw Bay to the East Tawas and Oscoda area. Palmer recalled that the bridge was “high enough above the water to permit a fighter plane to fly under,” not only in the daytime, but at night as well:
We would often fly under it on daytime flights but the more daring of us would test our instrument flying skills by flying under it on night flights. It was only natural for a fighter pilot to buzz and chance fate in other ways—as natural as a dog barking! We felt it was a means of improving our instrument flying technique. . . . [F]lying under a bridge [at night] tested a pilot’s mettle to actually fly on instruments alone.
Palmer was not the only Tuskegee Airman to fly under the Blue Water bridge. Alexander Jefferson admitted that he found the challenge of flying under bridges more than he could resist: “We went under the Blue Water Bridge between Port Huron and Sarnia. The Ambassador [bridge, between Detroit and Windsor, Ontario] was old hat; besides it was too high. However, I’m not going to lie. I think all of us were scared when we did it.”
However, Palmer was not satisfied with the thrill of flying under bridges. When he learned that the Tuskegee football team would be playing a game against West Virginia State College, also an all-black educational institution, in Detroit on Saturday, November 6, he decided to provide an aerial display to greet the participants, to let them know that “we [the Tuskegee pilots] were doing all right up here” in Michigan.
He was scheduled to lead a flight of four aircraft on a training flight on the day of the game. As an assistant flight leader of A flight, Palmer had the authority to alter the flight profile as he thought appropriate, and he changed the flight routine from a transition flight (in which the aircraft would practice formation flying) to a cross-country flight, and he led the other pilots on a direct course from Oscoda to the University of Detroit football stadium, where the game was being played. As Palmer reports the event,
When we got there, we made a cursory pass . . . at about 500 feet. I said to the others, “They will never even know it was us that came by. . . . Let’s go in a little closer.” The others decided they would head homeward. I headed in again a little lower mainly to check for wires and other obstructions that might be in my path. There being none, I decided to make my third pass a real buzz job. [There were, in fact, tall light towers along the east and west sides of the field, which was oriented in a north-south direction.] I came down below the level of the stands and performed a slow roll as I pulled up. When executed properly it is a beautiful maneuver and this one was executed to perfection.
Unfortunately for Palmer, the former 332nd Group Commander, Colonel Robert Selway, was seated in the stands watching the game. Selway spotted the aircraft markings and immediately called Selfridge Field and ordered that the pilot be grounded pending a court-martial. When Palmer landed at Oscoda, he was placed under house arrest, and Palmer was transported in a military vehicle to Selfridge “to be court-martialed.” Because Palmer possessed excellent flying skills, as testified to by his fellow pilots (and his own aerial performance), Palmer was not dismissed from the service, as he feared; instead he was sentenced to a loss of $75 of his monthly pay for three months and removed from his position as Assistant Flight leader.
When Palmer was stationed in Oscoda in the fall of 1943, local attitudes towards the black airmen had become more accepting; Palmer was able to install his wife (they had been married that summer) in a room in the town’s only hotel, the Welcome Hotel. He thought that the town was a “vacation paradise,” even in November. Situated on the east bank of the Au Sable River, the Hotel made full use of its proximity to the river, and the hotel staff did not have to worry about what would be served for dinner. Palmer recalled that
The fishing poles were always suspended [over the river] from the back porch and when we ordered a fish dinner we never knew what we would get on our plate: it was that fresh! It was prepared beautifully and always tasted delicious. Several of the officers and their wives lived in the hotel and ate in the hotel dining room.
An African-American enlisted man assigned to OAAF, Elvin E. Thomas, had a similar experience involving the Welcome Hotel. During his stay at Oscoda, he and his wife rented a room in the hotel for $10 a week, and his wife was promptly hired as a waitress. Thomas credited the hotel owners, Gordon and Charlotte Welcome, with providing the black airmen a comfortable environment free from the policies of segregation. Thomas later recalled how the black airmen could come into the hotel and order drinks at the bar. The freedom to enter a hotel which catered to white people and not be told to leave or to sit in a reserved area was a “new experience for many of the men” who trained in Oscoda.
Preparation for Departure
On the first of November, the 553rd Fighter Squadron was activated at Selfridge to train replacement pilots for the 332nd Fighter Group. The 553rd was staffed by all black personnel, including pilots who were returning to the United States after flying in combat in the 99th Fighter Squadron in North Africa and Italy. The 553rd was intended to replace the 403rd Fighter Squadron, which was staffed by white personnel and which had provided flight instruction of the pilots of the 332nd Fighter Group since May. The 553rd was tasked to provide combat training for the black pilots who had completed their initial flight training at Tuskegee but who needed further operational training before being assigned to a combat squadron. On the 12th of November, Lieutenant Louis R. Purnell of the 99th Fighter Squadron was assigned as commander of the 553rd Fighter Squadron at Selfridge Field. Four days later, with sufficient black pilots assigned, the 553rd Fighter Squadron moved from Selfridge to Oscoda. Among the pilots assigned to the 553rd were Lieutenants Herbert V. Clark, William Campbell, and Spann Watson, all returned combat pilots from the 99th Fighter Squadron. A few days later, the 302nd Fighter Squadron, the last of the three squadrons to be trained at Oscoda, returned to Selfridge.
All training ended in December, as the pilots and support personnel prepared for the expected move to a combat theater. On 15 December the 403rd Fighter Squadron was disbanded at Selfridge Field. Its training mission had been taken over by the 553rd Fighter Squadron, which continued to operate at Oscoda until 27 December, when it too returned to Selfridge. The 553rd remained at Selfridge until 14 May 1944, when it was transferred to Walterboro, South Carolina.
During the first two weeks of December, the men of the 332nd Fighter Group prepared to ship out to the combat zone; they assumed that they would be joining the 99th Fighter Squadron in Italy. On the 16th of December the enlisted men of the 332nd Fighter Group were given a farewell party at Selfridge. Four days later the officers of the 332nd Fighter Group were given a sendoff party at Detroit’s Labor Temple. On the following day, the 21st of December, all 332nd Fighter Group personnel were restricted to Selfridge pending transfer. They departed Selfridge on the 22nd of December for overseas duty, boarding a train to Virginia. They arrived at Camp Patrick Henry, Virginia, on Christmas Eve, 24 December. The personnel of the 332nd Fighter Group departed Hampton Roads, Virginia, on 3 January and arrived in Italy on 3 February 1944.
The airmen of the 332nd Fighter Group acquitted themselves well in their combat activities while flying in Europe. Of the men identified in this article, eight were credited with shooting down enemy aircraft (Robert Diez, Elwood Driver, Edward Gleed (2), William Campbell (2), Walter Palmer, Armour McDaniel, Edward Toppins (4), and Wendell Pruitt), and thirteen received the Distinguished Flying Cross (Benjamin O. Davis, Edward Gleed, William Mattison, Clarence Dart, Edward Driver, Roger Romine, Vernon Haywood, Edward Toppins, Louis Purnell, William Campbell, Walter Palmer, Wendell Pruitt, and Quitman Walker). Five died later while in the service of their country, three in Europe and one in the United States: James Polkinghorne was reported missing in action in May, 1944; Robert Tresville was reported missing in action in June, 1944; Mac Ross died in a plane crash in Italy in July, 1944; Roger Romine was killed in an aircraft accident in November 1944, and William Mattison was killed in a plane crash after the war ended, near Toledo, Ohio, in January, 1951.
When the members of the 553rd Fighter Squadron departed Oscoda Army Air Field on 27 December, the last of the Tuskegee-trained flying personnel left Oscoda. The majority of both flight and ground personnel of the 332nd Fighter Group had received their combat training at Oscoda, which had been home to approximately 1000 black officers and enlisted men from April to December, 1943. Although the units were operating out of Selfridge Field, and Oscoda was always referred to as a “sub-base” of Selfridge, the airfield at Oscoda was the primary location of the combat training that the pilots and ground support personnel of the three squadrons, the 100th, the 301st, and the 302nd, received. There was one more chapter to be added to the training experiences of the Tuskegee Airmen during World War II, the establishment of the 477th Bomb Group, in which the men flew B-25 aircraft. But no B-25 training was conducted at Oscoda.
In most accounts, including the information posted on the web site of the Tuskegee Institute, the combat training that the men of the 332nd received at Oscoda is mentioned in passing, as a kind of historical footnote to their assignment at Selfridge Field. But the majority of the men in the Group received their most extensive combat training at Oscoda, and Oscoda deserves recognition as an important location that played an essential role in the combat success of the group known today as the Tuskegee Airmen. Oscoda Army Airfield was later renamed Wurtsmith Air Force Base after World War II ended, and became the home of several Air Defense Command and Strategic Air Command units before it was closed in 1993. However, in its long seventy-year existence as an active training and operational airfield, perhaps no training event was as historically important as the training that was conducted for the men we know today as the Tuskegee Airmen.