It has been part of the lore of America’s first black fighter pilots since the end of World War II: The Tuskegee Airmen never lost a bomber to enemy fire.
But now, more than 60 years later, a leader of the group says he has uncovered records proving the claim is not accurate.
Air Force records show that at least a few bombers escorted by the red-tailed fighters of the Tuskegee Airman were shot down by enemy planes, William F. Holton, historian of Tuskegee Airmen Inc., said in an interview Monday with The Associated Press. And the group’s losses may have been much greater, he said.
Holton’s research was first reported Sunday by the Montgomery Advertiser.
Some surviving members of the group were offended by the findings of Holton and Daniel Haulman of the Air Force Historical Research Agency at Maxwell-Gunter Air Force Base in Montgomery, who came to the same conclusion.
Former Tuskegee Airman Carrol Woods of Montgomery called their claims “outrageous.”
“I think they are trying to destroy our record. What’s the point now?” Woods, 87, told the Advertiser.
Holton said his sole interest is in making sure the group’s history is as accurate as possible.
The Tuskegee Airmen were the first group of black fighter pilots allowed into the U.S. Army Air Corps. They got their name from the Alabama town where they trained.
Scouring mission records
With nearly 1,000 pilots and as many as 19,000 support personnel ranging from mechanics to nurses, the group was credited with shooting down more than 100 enemy aircraft and—for years—with never losing an American bomber under escort.
Holton, who has been historian of the association for about a decade, said he began leafing through mission reports after hearing a veteran complain that the Tuskegee Airmen really did lose some bombers.
Haulman said the group’s combat mission reports clearly show that U.S. bombers were lost while being escorted by Tuskegee Airmen in Europe.
Holton, of Columbia, Md., suspects that claims about the all-black group never losing a plane resulted from something that happened in May 1945 around the end of the war.
In a letter commending Davis, Col. Buck Taylor said the group had the distinction of never losing a bomber, Holton said. A military public relations representative included the claim in Davis’ official biography, he said, and Davis later put it in his autobiography.
Holton said while the reports document a few bomber losses, far more planes may have been lost. The only way to determine the group’s true record is to scour the post-mission reports of bomber groups that were escorted by the Airmen’s P-51 fighters.
Alan Gropman, who teaches at the National Defense University in Washington, told the Advertiser that more research is needed, but added: “Even if they lost three or four bombers, it would still be minuscule compared to the losses incurred by white pilots who also escorted bombers.”