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West Virginia State University’s Aviation Program
and Its Contribution to the Tuskegee Airmen

 
By: Charles T. Ledbetter, Ph.D.
WVSU Professor of Education, Retired
(Lt. Colonel, U.S. Army, Retired)
 
In the late 1930s the Army Air Training Command was producing only a few hundred pilots per year...all white. Despite a crusade from all the major civil rights organizations to open up pilot training to African Americans, the attitude of the military and its policies of discrimination reflected the racist views of the dominant society in America. By nature, African Americans were considered within the dominant culture to be subservient and mentally inferior to Whites. This belief was expanded by the military into a view of African Americans as being incapable of learning to fly military aircraft. Further, the Army Air Corps considered African Americans as lacking in the courage and resourcefulness required of pilots when faced with the dangers unique to war.
 
Arguably, the person who did the most to shape the image of the modern United States Air Force was Henry Harley "Hap" Arnold, a racist but brilliant officer who became the only five-star General of the Air Force. As a major general and Chief of the Army Air Corps in 1938, it was his vision and political skills that convinced the U.S. Congress to pass Public Law 18 on April 3, 1939, that authorized the Civil Aeronautics Authority to establish Civilian Pilot Training Programs. Subsequently, this program bore the brunt of the training burden throughout World War II. The program dramatically increased the small number of pilots available to the Army Air Corps in 1939 to the thousands who were trained and fought in World War II.
 
On June 27, 1939, the Congress passed the Civilian Pilot Training Act which authorized the establishment of Civilian Pilot Training Programs at 166 colleges and aviation training centers around the nation. Aware of the significance of this legislation, African American leaders and organizations, leading African American newspapers, concerned Congressmen, liberal coalitions and others successfully applied pressure to the Congress to include six historically black colleges in the 166 aviation programs. One African American newspaper, the Pittsburgh Courier, went so far as to state that the powers in Washington had already decided that the historically black schools selected for an aviation program were Wilberforce University, Howard University, Tuskegee Institute, and Hampton Institute. No mention was made of West Virginia State College.
 
Yet, on September 10, 1939, West Virginia State College became the first of six historically black colleges to be authorized by the Civil Aeronautics Authority to establish an aviation program. Howard University, Hampton Institute, Tuskegee Institute, Lincoln University of Missouri, and Delaware State were later awarded aviation programs. The response of the Pittsburgh Courier newspaper to the announcement of West Virginia State’s selection was a story that began with "What we have just witnessed is a miracle...supplemented by the far-sighted genius of men of action, backed by visions which have come true."
 
However, it was not a miracle that West Virginia State College was the first selected. It was a combination of several things to include a well prepared application, and the College’s location next to Charleston’s municipal airport, Wertz Field (current location of the chemical plant). More important to the College’s success were the genius, vision, political savvy, and determination of the College’s president, Dr. John W. Davis; professor James C. Evans, assistant to president and director of the College’s division of trades and technical education, and music professor Joseph Grider, a certified pilot and vice president of the African American National Airmen Association. The first pilot training class at West Virginia State College began on November 14, 1939.
 
Throughout 1939 and 1940, the Army Air Corps rejected any efforts to accept African American graduates of the pilot training programs into its officer flight program. By January 1941, West Virginia State College and Tuskegee Institute had graduated several classes from their aviation programs and were actively competing for authority to offer a commercial pilot’s course for the graduates of the aviation programs at the six historically black colleges. Despite the determined efforts of Dr. Davis and Professor Evans, Tuskegee Institute was selected to establish a commercial pilot’s program with the other schools being feeder schools for that program.
 
In the early months of 1941, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt, northern congressmen, and a few officials in the War Department were also increasing the pressure on the Army Air Corps to open its officer flight program to African Americans. Realizing the possibility of this occurring, Dr. Davis and Professor Evans attempted to cover all the bases that would ensure West Virginia State College would be the institution selected to offer that training. However, again Tuskegee Institute won the right to cooperate with the Army Air Corps in establishing a program to train African Americans as officers and pilots for the Air Corps.

The NAACP, the National Airmen’s Association, Dr. Davis, and other African American leaders were unhappy with the decision to locate the Air Corps flying training facility in Alabama. They viewed Alabama as being, at the time, one of the places where the strongest and most dangerous forces of resistance to the civil rights of African Americans had been nurtured and were actively practiced. Many believed that Tuskegee Institute and the Air Corps were involved in an unholy alliance to keep Blacks segregated.
 
However, Dr. F. D. Patterson, President of Tuskegee Institute, personally appealed to the Presidents of the other five schools to support the program and to nominate graduates of their programs for what the Army Air Corps was calling the "Tuskegee Experience." Despite his deep disappointment in the College not being selected, Dr. Davis nominated West Virginia State College graduates George Spencer Roberts from Fairmont, West Virginia, and Mac Ross from Dayton, Ohio for the "Tuskegee Experience."
 
The construction of the Army Air Field at Tuskegee Institute began on June 23, 1941. The 99thPursuit Squadron was assigned to conduct the training. The first cadet pilot training class consisted of 13 members that included Roberts and Ross from West Virginia State and Captain Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., at that time, the only African American to graduate from West Point in the twentieth century.
 
Of the 13 cadets that began the training, only five successfully completed it. On March 7, 1942, West Virginia State College’s George Roberts and Mac Ross joined two other cadets in being commissioned Second Lieutenants, and all four joined Captain Davis in receiving their wings as the first African American aviators in the Army Air Corps. Lieutenant Roberts, West Virginia State College Class of ‘38, was appointed Commanding Officer of the 99thPursuit Squadron; and Lieutenant Mac Ross, Class of ‘40 was appointed Commanding Officer of the 100thPursuit SquadroDespite West Virginia State’s excitement over the success of its graduates, Roberts and Ross, its aviation program began to run into problems that threatened its continuation.

Union Carbide bought land near the College to build a chemical plant, and Charleston decided to close its Municipal Airport, Wertz Field, and move it to an area near downtown Charleston. The College made numerous pleads to the West Virginia Board of Control to maintain Wertz field as a flying field. However, the Board of Control determined that the new plant would present obstruction to commercial airlines and closed the airport. The final blow to the program came in the summer of 1942 when the War Department canceled pilot training programs at all six historically black colleges, stating that the Army would assume the training of all African American pilots at the Tuskegee Air Field.
 
In a July 24, 1943 letter to President Davis, Mr. Evans states, "It is interesting to note from the press releases from Tuskegee Army Air Field, the increasing number of West Virginia State College graduates and students who are (joining the Tuskegee Airmen)." Several West Virginia State graduates became a part of the 99thFighter Squadron that fought gallantly in the North African Theater under the command of West Virginia State’s George Roberts. Later, the 99thjoined the 100th, 301st, and 302ndFighter Squadrons that comprised the 332ndFighter Group which included many West Virginia State College alumni. The 332ndfought heroically in the European Theater of operation initially under Colonel Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. and then under the command of West Virginia State’s George Roberts.
 
"During the course of (World War II), the Tuskegee Airmen lost 66 pilots killed in the combat zone... They destroyed or damaged 409 German aircraft, over 950 units of ground transportation, and sank a destroyer with machine gun fire alone, which was a unique accomplishment. However, their most distinctive achievement was that not one friendly bomber was lost to enemy aircraft attacks during 200 escort missions. This success was unique because no other fighter unit with nearly as many missions could make the same claim."
 
After World War II ended, the Tuskegee Airmen led the Air Force in completing its integration process almost before the Army, Navy, or Marine Corps had begun. After the Army Air Corps became the Air Force in 1947, it quickly and uneventfully changed from a segregated to an integrated service. It appears that the success of the Tuskegee Airmen during the war resulted in more leaders in the United States Army Air Corps who were enthusiastic backers of integration than any other military service.
 
Consisting of many West Virginia State College graduates in command and support positions, the Tuskegee Airmen earned an outstanding record in and out of combat regardless of how it might be assessed. They performed brilliantly, despite being trained and having to operate under the most difficult conditions of segregation and discrimination, in the United States and overseas. In American military history, the extraordinary achievements of the Tuskegee Airmen in and out of combat are matched by very few military units...and indirectly, West Virginia State University contributed strongly to those achievements.
 
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