Breaking Racial Barriers In WWII

Combat pilot Lee Archer Jr. and America’s first black military airmen

“There are no atheists in foxholes,” the saying goes. After undertaking 169 combat flights—compared with the 50 averaged by other pilots during World War II—Yonkers native Lee Archer Jr. knew this to be true. But, he faced an especially challenging headwind: He happened to be America’s first black “ace pilot.”

Archer, who was born in Yonkers and grew up in Harlem, enrolled in New York University in 1941 to study  international relations. The disquiet of war was unmistakable. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had just signed the Lend-Lease Act, a first step to crossing the pond by lending money and arms to the Allies. The Nazis had goose-stepped into Greece and Yugoslavia with little resistance. Archer decided to enlist in the Air Force—only to find African Americans unwelcome. Instead, he was assigned to a communications office post. 

Several months later, civil-rights activists pushed a bill through Congress for the full participation of African Americans in the US defense program. The War Department reluctantly formed a segregated all-black combat unit at Tuskegee Army Airfield in Alabama, referred to as the “Tuskegee Airmen.” The 1940 census reflected just 124 licensed black pilots in the country.

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Archer jumped at the opportunity, earning his wings at the top of his class to take on cover, escort, and reconnaissance operations in Europe. With the name of his wife, Ina, painted on the P-51 Mustang’s nose, Archer shielded Allied troops at the beaches of Anzio in Italy. He shot down four German planes, including three in one day over Hungary, and ran missions in almost a dozen countries.

The distinguished all-black Tuskegee Airmen combat unit—called the “Red Tails” for the color of their planes’ rudders—quickly earned a reputation for felling more than 100 enemy aircraft. From oilfields in Romania to rail yards in Austria, legend told that the Red Tails never lost a bomber. In turn, they disproved government studies claiming that African Americans lacked the intellect, skill, courage, and patriotism to assume major military positions.

The Red Tails’ success helped convince President Harry Truman to desegregate the military in 1948. Three Tuskegee Airmen would go on to become top generals. Their example was later cited in repealing the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy for gays, lesbians, and bisexuals decades later.

In his own right, by the end of WWII, Archer had earned a trophy case of major awards and distinctions—including the Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medals, and Special Citations from three US presidents. The mayor of Paris bestowed Archer with the Accueil de Paris for his service, and he returned to Tuskegee to become chief of the Instrument Instructors School. Archer later assumed roles as chief of protocol for the French Liaison Office and White House Air Force-France project officer.

Following his retirement from the military, Archer’s ambitions moved to the corporate landscape. He became a vice president at General Foods (one of the country’s few black corporate executives), then CEO of North Street Capital, and finally a board member of Beatrice International Foods and the Institute for American Business. The impact was palpable. President Obama invited Archer and other Tuskegee Airmen to attend his first inauguration. That same year, filmmaker George Lucas asked the veteran pilot to serve as a consultant on his film Red Tails.

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By the time Archer fully retired to New Rochelle, much had improved for African Americans. But, the gains had not come without intense struggle. Archer had endured the tangles and contradictions of Jim Crow racism, returning home from World War II to find black and white troops taking vastly different paths off the plane.

When a group of Tuskegee veterans visited a spinoff of their old unit serving in Iraq, Archer was blown away. Not all issues had been solved, but the soldiers were integrated and respected. “It is not an organization of African American pilots trying to break the segregation system—they have done it,” Archer remarked.

Archer died in New York City at age 90, ostensibly from complications related to coronary disease. His death came during the post-production phase of Red Tails, which offered a tribute to the groundbreaking historical figure in its closing credits.

Today, on the back of Lee Archer’s tombstone at Arlington National Cemetery, sits an etching of a small plane above three powerful words: “A Tuskegee Airman.” 

Dan Robbins majored in history and American studies at Cornell University and remains an unabashed history buff, particularly when it comes to his own backyard.

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