Many Americans are fighting over history or better still, the preservation of their version of it.
From Civil War monuments to critical race theory, how we want to remember people, places and things continues to divide the United States. But talking to the people who lived it can make a world of difference.
History can be a source of pride or pain. There is a lot at stake when talking about the past. A hero in one story can be the villain on another page of that same story. I have heard persons say, “It wasn’t that bad,” or “They weren’t all bad.” But context matters.
For the Tuskegee Airmen, the 332d Fighter Group and the 477th Bombardment Group of the United States Army Air Forces, it was 1941and it was World War II. Known as the Red Tails or the Red-Tail Angels, they were trained for aerial combat at Tuskegee Army Airfield in Alabama and were active until 1948.
These men were the first all African American military pilot group and would become one of the world’s most celebrated units in World War II.
Daniel Haulman, one of the leading authorities on the Tuskegee Airmen who served as the longtime Chief of Organizational History Division at the Air Force Historical Research Agency, said in a 2020 interview:
“The Tuskegee Airmen pilots are most remembered for flying fighters in the Mediterranean theater, first for the Twelfth Air Force, under which they flew hundreds of missions, then for the Fifteenth Air Force. While flying for the latter, the 332d Fighter Group and its 99th, 100th, 301st, and 302d Fighter Squadrons flew primarily bomber escort missions, and gained a reputation for excellence. Between early June 1944 and the end of April 1945, the Tuskegee Airmen flew 312 missions, 179 of which were bomber escort missions. They lost escorted bombers to enemy aircraft on only seven of those missions.”
These men made history. There is a movie and a museum dedicated to them. Still, neither is as informative as talking to someone who was there, who made history what it is with hard choices in the face of difficult circumstances.
Recently, I was invited to talk to Lt. Col. Enoch “Woody” Woodhouse, a Tuskegee Airman, who is now 95 years old. Born in 1927, he doesn’t sound like a man who has lived through so much. This is portion of our conversation.
Thomas: What are your thoughts on going to war as a Christian?
Woody: I don’t consider myself a philosopher though I have lived a few days. Going to war as a Christian, I cannot resolve it because of the Bible. It’s conflicting. “If thy right hand offends thee, cut it off. If thy enemy smite thee on their right cheek, turn the left.”
I consider myself a devout human. My religion that was thrust on me as an African is Anglican English. And we have a dilemma of having a religion thrust upon us.
So, I am in conflict. I do not like wars. I detest one person killing another for any reason. I object to anyone who starts violence. Hitler started violence. Putin started violence. Japan started violence.
As a young Black high school kid from a religious family, when Pearl Harbor came, my mother said, “Boys, you will have to fight and defend America” when the pictures we were shown was our people being lynched and it was a spectator sport.
Tulsa, Oklahoma, as a self-sustained community. We were trying to raise ourselves up by our bootstraps … but our feet were cut off.
Social approbation was heaped on you if you were not in uniform. These are dilemmas. Either side is right; either side is wrong.
Conflicts don’t have to be between nations; they can be within countries themselves. They can be within political parties, right wing and left wing and among religions.
Thomas: What are your thoughts about race and your convictions as an American citizen?
Woody: We’re at a divisive point in America with two parties at war. I have feelings about this country with the racial divide. There is much discussion about young kids being taught CRT. But everyone knows that America was founded on … two races building America.
Black and Chinese (people) being “imported” to build the railroads. Overthrowing the government does not bode well. The arc of justice bends towards the right; this might be the eclipse of the American empire as we know it. … And the world will go on as long as nuclear weapons are not employed.
Thomas: You are a Tuskegee airman. What has this meant to you?
Woody: Another dilemma. I enlisted to fight but my country said we will only use you in housekeeping matters. The War Department study in the 1930s said that African Americans were lazy and shiftless. Research Montford Point at Camp La June. It is all conflictual.
Thomas: What advice do you have for future generations?
Woody: I give them a dilemma. How are we going to work together as one species (considering) religion, ethics, materialism, individualism and human nature?
Thomas: Thank you for your service and your time.
Woody: Thank you.