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Roland Brown ’49 and David Showell ’51 served with the Tuskegee Airmen

Lafayette Alumni News, September 1998 — Two Lafayette men, Roland Brown ’49 and David Showell ’51, served with the Tuskegee Airmen, an elite unit of black servicemen who distinguished themselves during World War II. These men, longing to take an active role in the struggle against the Nazis and assisted by allies in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration, overcame tremendous obstacles to become Army AirCorps fliers, striking blows against fascism abroad and racism at home.

  • The McDonogh Report celebrates the contributions of African Americans to the Lafayette community.

Blacks have a long history of service in the United States military, starting in the Revolution. By the end of the Civil War, more than 10 percent of the troops in the Union Army were black, and black units distinguished themselves in the frontier wars against the Indians and during the Spanish-American War.

Blacks also served in World War I, but only in segregated Army units or in low-level Navy jobs. It wasn’t until 50 years ago, July 26, 1948, that President Harry S Truman signed Executive Order 9981, which officially ended segregation in the military.

Brown and Showell served in the armed forces before attending Lafayette. “We went through flight school together,” Brown says of Showell, who died in a traffic accident in the 1950s. The men became Tuskegee Airmen, so named because they trained in Tuskegee, Ala.

Brown, 75, now living in Palm Coast, Fla,, went on to a distinguished career with the Defense Department and in the private sector before retiring in 1981. He also distinguished himself by his service to Lafayette, and was a member of the college’s Board of Trustees from 1975 to 1990.

The Tuskegee Airmen, numbering about 1,000, remained a fairly obscure historic footnote until 1995, when HBO Pictures released a movie of the same name starring Lawrence Fishburn. The movie vividly portrays the obstacles the young black fliers faced.

Brown says its depiction of the way blacks were treated is completely accurate. “I went into the Army in April 1943. I was shipped out to Jefferson Barracks, Mo., and out in Jefferson we were segregated.” He says segregation in the Army was so pervasive that when Joe Louis, the famous black boxer, came to Eglin Air Base in Florida for a boxing exhibition, “they let the white boys in first to see it,” after which the black troops finally were allowed in.

Eventually, he saw a sign on the base saying: “You, too, can learn to fly,” and inquired about it. After a check of his teeth and a cursory psychiatric exam, he went to Mississippi for tests, after which he was accepted for flight school in Tuskegee, but was trained as a bombardier-navigator instead.

When it was time for gunnery training, Brown says, the Army sent a group of about 84 men to Tyndall Field, Fla., but kept them waiting on a hot bus because “they didn’t have accommodations for blacks. They wouldn’t integrate us with the white cadets on the base.” He says the Army eventually found space for them by kicking some black enlisted men out of their quarters.

The movie follows the men of the 99th Pursuit Group, which was combined with other black units into the 332nd Fighter Group. The unit fought in North Africa, handling mostly ground-attack missions, but later went to Italy and was assigned to bomber escort duty.

The 332nd never lost a single bomber it was escorting to enemy fighters, according to the official web page of the Tuskegee Airmen, Inc., a group of Tuskegee veterans. The 332nd was credited with over 250 aerial kills, but 66 of its members died in combat.

Brown and Showell, though, were assigned to the 477th Medium Bombardment Group, which flew B-25 bombers. An entry on the web site says the group never entered combat because of the surrender of Germany and Japan in 1945. But Brown says that’s incorrect. He says the 477th was ready to go to war against Japan, but never shipped out. “It was because we were black. The commanding generals and admirals in the Pacific didn’t want us there.”

Many officers of the 477th, which was stationed for a time at Freeman Field in Seymour, Ind., were involved in the so-called Freeman Field Mutiny in April 1945, which started when several black officers were turned away from the segregated officers’ club. Protests erupted, and four black officers eventually were court-martialed and dozens more were confined to quarters, Brown says. The Air Force eventually cleared the last of the court-martialed officers’ records in 1995, 40 years after the fact.

Brown says the Freeman Field incident caught the attention of Truman, who became president on April 12, when Franklin D. Roosevelt died. “I am sure that was one of the key things that helped President Truman integrate the armed forces.”

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