Tuskegee Airmen: ‘Heroes can be black, too’
  • A stop-off at Tuskegee to honor an Airman uncle
  • Discovering the identity of a Tuskegee airman
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    Tuskegee Airmen 1943 “Buy War Bonds” poster

    When the United States needed lots of cash to fund its role in World War II, it turned to its citizens to buy war bonds.

    Using propaganda posters, the country played on their patriotism, asking them to sacrifice by loaning it money, rationing to conserve materials, enlisting in the military and helping in the war effort in any way they could. The posters were aimed at everyone, but the faces on most of them were white.

    For its war-bonds plea, it also appealed to its African American citizens, whose skin was black but whose dollars were green. Didn’t matter that the folks back home and the soldiers across the sea were treated in inhuman ways by the producers of these posters. Despite that, blacks supported the war against Nazism abroad: They created War Bonds savings clubs, bought bonds individually, planted victory gardens, entertained troops, wrote letters to soldiers and did much more.

    So the image to compel them to open up their wallets and pocketbooks even more was one that they were proud of: a Tuskegee airman.

    An up-close view of the 1943 "Keep Us Flying" poster featuring a Tuskegee airman.

    An up-close view of the 1943 “Keep Us Flying” poster featuring a Tuskegee airman.

    The U.S. Treasury Department – which was among many agencies and others that produced propaganda posters – commissioned a poster that would appeal to their love of country. In its own subtle way, the poster could be seen as a show of support for black airmen at a time when even the military doubted their ability to fly planes.

    At auction recently, a replica of the poster of an African American airman hung on a wall among other prints. I recognized the poster but had forgotten that the brown face on it was representative of the Tuskegee Airmen. The poster was attached to a board and suitable for hanging. It wasn’t an original, but it was close enough.

    The airman was Lt. Robert W. Deiz, who was in the first class of Tuskegee trainees, entering the program in 1942.

    Many of us know the story of the Tuskegee Airmen, among the most decorated group of soldiers in World War II. Starting in 1941, the first of them were trained at the segregated Tuskegee Army Air Field near Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Tuskegee already had a pilot training program for civilians that had been operating for two years.

    A full view of the 1943 "Keep Us Flying" poster at auction.

    A full view of the 1943 “Keep Us Flying” poster at auction.

    This group of men, the country’s first African American military pilots, were the 99th Pursuit Squadron, which trained for about eight months on single-engine planes at the Tuskegee airfield. They were taught primarily to be escorts for white pilots in the war. Lt. Col. Benjamin O. Davis Jr. was their commander.

    They were deployed to North Africa and Sicily in 1943, and their first fighting mission was an intense air battle over the island of Pantelleria in the Mediterranean Sea, which the Italian government was using as a base to attack Allied forces that were trying to push into Sicily.

    In 1944, the 333rd Fighter Group was deployed (the 99th became part of this unit), fighting in Europe and becoming one of the most successful units. A third set of squadrons, the 477th Bombardment Group, trained on two-engine B-25 bombers but the war ended in 1945 before that group could be sent overseas. Over five years, Tuskegee trained more than 1,000 African Americans pilots.

    The Tuskegee Army Air Field, 1945. The hangar in foreground was built in 1941 and the one in back in 1943. Photos from boards at the Moton Field site.

    The Tuskegee Army Air Field, 1945. The hangar in foreground was built in 1941 and the one in back in 1943. Photos from boards at the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site.

    Recently, I learned that I had an uncle who was training to be a pilot with the 333rd Fighter Group months before the war ended. All were not in pilot training. There were support personnel such as bombardiers, navigators, radio technicians, lab assistants, cooks, firefighters and mechanics.

    The Tuskegee Airmen poster was created in 1943, and the image of airman Diez was done by Betsy Graves Reyneau, a white artist who painted portraits of many prominent African Americans. A collection of portraits by Reyneau and African American artist Laura Wheeler Waring was commissioned in the 1940s by the Harmon Foundation and mounted in a traveling exhibition.

    Born in Portland, OR, Deiz enrolled at the University of Oregon on a track scholarship. He played four instruments, including the tuba and bass horn, and was a member of the Portland Junior Symphony and the university’s orchestra.

    Lt. Robert W. Deiz, the model for the 1943 "Keep Us Flying" poster. From the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force website.

    Lt. Robert W. Deiz, the model for the 1943 “Keep Us Flying” poster. From the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force website.

    He graduated from the Tuskegee program in 1942 as a member of the 99th Fighter Squadron. He shot down several enemy planes in 1944.  “It irks when people refer to us as an experiment,” he told a war correspondent on the front. “We are not conceited but we feel we can fly as well as anybody else.”

    Deiz was at the training field in 1943 when Reyneau came to Tuskegee for a sitting with scientist George Washington Carver. She had also been commissioned to come up with an image for the poster. He asked Reyneau if he could watch her as she painted. He had an interest in art, having studied it and having taught painting and sculpture in adult education classes in Portland. She chose him as the poster model after getting the OK from his commanding officer (who likely was Davis).

    That poster was apparently not the only one featuring Tuskegee Airmen but perhaps the most recognizable. Another shows an airman standing on the wing of a plan with text urging folks to buy bonds during a fifth war bonds drive from June 12 to July 8 (1944). These drives were an all-out government effort using posters, radio and newspapers, entertainers and films to get folks to buy war bonds.

    A 1944 poster featuring a Tuskegee Airmen urges people to buy bonds. From National Park Service website.

    A 1944 poster featuring a Tuskegee Airmen urges people to buy bonds. From National Park Service website.


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