[Editor's Note: The recently released film about the "Tuskegee Airmen" makes a number of exaggerated claims about the unit's accomplishments. This 2008 letter to the Atlanta Journal Constitution is a welcome corrective.]
From: Bob Powell
Date: July 3, 2008
This letter was not written for publication, but to enlighten you and your staff about some of the errors and misleading information you continue to publish, Perhaps it should be published to set your readers straight.
As a WWII Historian and former 8th AF fighter pilot flying 87 missions over Europe during WWII, I am dedicated to factual reporting about the air war in Europe and aviation in general, and I take issue with the media (and not with just AJC) continuing to publish untrue and/or misleading statements about the Tuskegee Airmen (T/A). Although I have great respect for the pilots and achievements of this WWII Fighter Group, I do not appreciate the continuing repetition of myths and untruths about their military record, the latest example in the obit on Lt. Col Charles Dryden in today’s paper, repeating the same errors which appeared in his obit story a few days ago.
For more than 60 years the myth that they “never lost a bomber they were escorting to an enemy fighter,” was their primary claim to fame!
Then, several months ago, their historian , William E. Holten, announced that his research proved that this was not true, that they had, indeed, lost some 25 bombers to enemy fighters. This myth still gets published occasionally, but far less frequently since he made this disclosure, thank goodness. Lies told often enough tend to become truths in the minds of many. However, it now seems to have been replaced by another false claim, i.e. that the Tuskegee Airmen flew more than 15,000 combat missions. ALSO NOT TRUE!
Their own official records indicate that the T/A only flew 311 missions. Their so-called 15,000 “missions” were actually 15,000 “sorties.” Apparently, none of your reporters know the difference between a “mission” and a “sortie,” so let me define these for you and them. Combat Mission is an assigned flight to accomplish a military objective. This can be flown by one pilot or a squadron or group of pilots flying together. It is recorded as one mission. Combat Sortie. When, for example, 48 or 64 pilots fly together on a combat mission it is recorded as 48 or 64 combat sorties.
The T/A did not fly 15,000+ combat missions, as stated in your articles about the demise of Col. Charles Dryden. They flew 15,000+ “sorties.” To have flown that many “missions” during the time they were in combat in the MTO, they would have had to fly about 25 missions a day every day they were in combat. Do the math. That’s one mission every hour, every day they were in combat. Impossible! Weather alone would have prevented this, not to mention the problem of keeping all of their aircraft flyable every day over that period of time.
FACT: Their official records indicate they flew only 311 missions, a far cry from 15,000 claimed. Please advise your reporters of the difference between a mission and a sortie so that another T/A myth is not appearing in every mention this Fighter group.
The Dryden story also stated that the 99th Squadron of the T/A was “the most successful squadron in American history.” NOT SO! It would be more correct to say they have been the most publicized squadron in American history, however, thanks to a fully-paid public relations staff in Washington, D.C., the only such office of any military unit other than the U.S. Army, Navy, Marines and Coast Guard.
Although I do not have complete combat statistics on all the fighter groups flying out of Africa and Italy (the MTO), I do have the stats on all of the 16 fighter groups flying in the Eighth Air Force over western Europe. And, when these records are compared, the Tuskegee Airmen rank at the bottom of the list despite the fact that they had four squadrons to only three for the 8th AF groups. FYI, and one of the reasons the T/A exploit their 15,000+ sorties (which they call missions) is that on a normal mission they would put up 64 fighters compared to only 48 for the 8th AF groups . And, since they did mostly ground support missions rather than bomber escort missions, the average length of their missions was about half that of the time in the air flown by the 8th AF fighters. Regarding the above mentioned stats, I would be delighted to provide these for your information if requested.
Another gross error in your first story on Colonel Dryden is that the implication that he was, individually, awarded the Congressional Gold Medal recently. ALSO NOT TRUE. Through the efforts of the New York Senator, this medal was awarded to the Tuskegee Airmen, authorizing all Tuskegee Airman to receive this award. It was not awarded for individual achievements, as implied, but for the role played by the T/A in breaking the color ban for pilots, a civil rights accomplishment, not for their military achievements.
Had this award been given for their military achievements alone, it should also have been awarded to each and every other fighter group in WWII whose records exceeded those of the Tuskegee Airmen. In my opinion, this was a “political award” instead of a military award.
No other bomber or fighter units have been awarded this Medal, only Unit Citations. These are facts. Check them out, and here’s to more factual reporting and a better AJC.
Robert H. Powell, Jr.
352nd Fighter Group
1545 Rainier Falls Dr.
Atlanta, GA 30329