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Author Topic: Historians dispute Tuskegee Airmen's perfect record
snopes
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The hallmark of the Tuskegee Airmen success story has been that America's first black fighter pilots never lost a bomber to enemy aircraft during World War II escort missions. Two historians say that's a myth.

http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2006-12-10-tuskegee-airmen_x.htm

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Troberg
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I've heard that they never left the bombers they were escorting and were famous for sticking with them no matter what, giving them an excellent record. They did not leave their bombers to chase a fleeing fighter, they stuck with their mission.

I highly doubt that no bombers were lost, there is simply too much chance involved in aerial combat for that to happen. A long shot that gets lucky, a fighter that slips through when they are outnumbered, flak, a fighter that just gets lucky and avoids vital hits while making its run and so on will take its toll.

Even so, I'd say that I value the "stick with the bombers at all costs" higher than a perfect record. The former shows commitment, the latter, while still a measure of skill, is to a large part also luck.

I picked this up from a documentary I saw, but I don't remember the name. If someone is interested, I can check it when I get home. It was a documentary that had one episode for each major nation (Soviet, Germany, Japan, Britain and USA) of the conflict, as well as a couple of special episodes (Airmen shot down and research IIRC).

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/Troberg

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Jay Tea
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It's often been said that the Redtails never lost a bomber to an enemy fighter but this is a ludicrous statement to make – as Troberg states, the sheer randomness of bomber escort would mean that even a weak, underarmed assault on a bomber formation would have a pretty high chance of a degree of success, even if the fighter pilots never made it home. I just read ‘Lancaster Down’, an account of Bomber Command crews over Europe and only towards the end of the war when defences were shattered and fighter pilots and machines destroyed did bomber formations enjoy 100% hin und zuruck sorties.

They were excellent, and asked for by name by bomber crews, but no better than other pilots because of specific training or indeed specific race. Some of the very best piston fighter pilots that ever flew escorted Luftwaffe bombers over the UK and fought tooth and nail to defend their fellow airmen, but whilst they fought off one aircraft, others were shattering the bombers in their turn, and often raw pilots in inferior machines. Judging by the theatres the Redtails fought in I would deem it very unlikely that not a single enemy fighter was successful or indeed lucky, given the vast formations and ‘the to the death’ attitude of the defending airmen while they lasted…

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Troberg
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Also, the German pilots in WW2 were overall second to none, even though their best pilots where on the east front.

It's not pure luck that makes the top ace list of WW2 more or less a who's who of German aviation, with a few Finnish and Soviet exceptions. This is despite the fact that these nations, especially Germany, had far mor restrictive rules for counting victories than the other nations.

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/Troberg

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Jay Tea
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hardhead
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Part of the reason for the Luftwaffe holding all the top spots is the Eastern Front was a target rich environment at the beginning of the war. Note that almost all (if not all) of the top aces were themselves shot down multiple times. The Finns are there for the same reason, the Soviets because towards the end of the war there were still lots of Luftwaffe planes on the Eastern Front, but not a lot of skilled pilots, (most of them were dead).

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Troberg
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Jay Tea: Is it a two seater in that image?

quote:
The Finns are there for the same reason
You don't know the Finns. They are up there because they are so darn stubbornly tough. They would have been there if they had to flap their arms and headbutt the Soviet aircrafts. They mostly flew outdated aircraft, but as long as they could keep them together, they kept flying and they attacked regardless of odds. They had some truly great pilots, but most of all, their stubbornness made the difference.

I think it was Ilmari "Illu" Juutilainen, Finland's top ace with over 90 victories, who described it best (quoting from memory): "The Soviets thought they could scare us into submission by attacking us. Finns don't get scared when attacked, they get angry."

quote:
the Soviets because towards the end of the war there were still lots of Luftwaffe planes on the Eastern Front, but not a lot of skilled pilots, (most of them were dead).
The Soviets also gained both experienced pilots and a technological advantage (at the end of the war, their aircrafts and armaments were second to none).

Overall, the east front produced more aces as both sides flew many more missions. They basically just touched down to refuel and rearm and get some occasional sleep. Compared to this, the pilots on the west front flew relatively few missions. Many missions means a high turnover among pilots, which means that there will be a gap between good pilots and rookies.

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/Troberg

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GenYus
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Two things about the "not losing a bomber" claim. First off, it is actually, "not losing a bomber due to enemy aircraft". So any bombers lost to flak don't count (nor should they as fighters can't protect against flak.

Secondly, from I can tell the 332nd did not begin bomber escort missions until July of 1944. By that time, German airpower was severly diminished. This log from the 339th Fighter Group (P-51 fighters) shows that nearly every aircraft lost to enemy fire in '44 was lost to AA fire, not enemy aircraft.

It is possible that a white fighter group may have a comparible record if the same time periods are used.

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IIRC, it wasn't the shoe bomber's loud prayers that sparked the takedown by the other passengers; it was that he was trying to light his shoe on fire. Very, very different. Canuckistan

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chillas
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My understanding is the same as GenYus's - that their record was no bombers lost to enemy aircraft. I'd never heard that they'd never lost a bomber at all, which is what the OP seems to be about.

In other words, it seems to be that they're disputing something that was not in dispute.

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Bubby
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BTW- different contries have different ways of determining what counts as a kill...

some require multiple witnesses and only count a kill made by a solitary person...

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Troberg
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quote:
BTW- different contries have different ways of determining what counts as a kill...
Correct. Wikipedia has the info on it. Counterintuitively, the nations with the most victories has the strictest rules.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flying_ace

quote:
In World War II, many air forces credited fractional shares of aerial victories, resulting in fractions or decimal scores such as 11½ or 26.83. Some U.S. commands also credited aircraft destroyed on the ground as equal to aerial victories. The Soviets distinguished between solo and group kills, as did the Japanese, though the Japanese Navy stopped crediting individual victories in 1943. The German Luftwaffe continued the tradition of "one pilot, one kill."
When reading the page linked above, remember the small note: "List of prominent aces with 20 kills or more (Except German aces in World War II; 100 kills or more.)". The Germans were the bad guys, but they sure could fly.

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/Troberg

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Wellen
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http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/16227836/

This man says his and one if the Tuskegee were shot down on the same run.

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Majorsam
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I've always taken the Tuskegee's claim with a grain of salt, so this doesn't surprise me. On the one hand, units almost always inflate their importance in any fight....and on the other, race politics in America tended to add inflation to combat records as well. Anyone casually familiar with US mlitary history has probably heard of the 442nd RCT, the 761st TD Battalion or the 54th Massachusetts Infantry. All were fine units that did heroic service, but because they weren't integrated units they tended to get highlighted in history and their exploits seemed to eclipse the service of contemporary units that did as good - if not better.

Regarding aces, another factor not mentioned was Germany's "fly 'till you die" policy which allowed them to rack up some phenomenal kills...The US policy, for instance, was to rotate pilots back home to train others.

I think it is difficult to annoint German pilots as the best for a variety of reasons given based on simply the number of kills. One should consider a variety of factors. One also can be number of kills per sortie. As an example, Erich Rudorffer scored a very impressive 222 kills (mostly on the Eastern front, but also on the West). However, he took 1,000 combat sorties to get there, and fought for pretty much the entire war from Battle of Britain to the peace. Major Richard Bong, one of the US great aces, scored a paltry 40 kills...but he did that in only 19 months of combat & 200 combat missions. By coincidence their kill ratio is roughly 1 kill in 5 sorties. Seems to me that if Bong had been allowed to continue he may have been in the same league.

All that said, Finns are probably the best. For gawds sake they had pilots making kills in the Brewster Buffalo!

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Troberg
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quote:
All that said, Finns are probably the best. For gawds sake they had pilots making kills in the Brewster Buffalo!
Well, they eventually got some Me-109's, but it's still impressive. The Soviet aircrafts, especially later in the war, were exceptionally good for their time, and the pilots on the eastern front (regardless of side) where overall much more experienced than the pilots on other fronts since they flew so many more missions.

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/Troberg

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Echinodermata Q. Taft
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I do recall hearing a few of the Tuskegee Airmen being interviewed on a radio talk show some years back. What was great was when they took calls from listeners, a large proportion were from former bomber crewman, basically calling to say "You guys saved our butts many times. Thank you." It was just warming to hear.

For total kills, it's not surprising the Luftwaffe pilots are ranked so high. By the end of the air war, Germany was so short of skilled pilots that men were going up who had flown literally hundreds of comabt missions, whereas American pilots in particular tended to be rotated off combat duty after maybe 50. (Not that surviving 50 combat missions was anything to take for granted...) In Chuck Yeager's autobiography, he talks about training with pilots from many different nations in the post-war years, and said that the Luftwaffe guys were incredibly impressive. Of course, you figure the ones that survived that had to be damned good.

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Meka
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I was going to suggest sorties-per-kill myself as a better statistic for measuring pilot skill, but somebody beat me to it before I could get registered. Erich Hartmann, history's leading ace with 352 kills, accomplished this feat over something like 800 missions - or an unheard of 16 combat tours for an American fighter pilot.

Additionally, I wouldn't overlook the benefit of "home airspace" when evaluating the Germans. After the Battle of Britain, most German fighter pilots were fighting either over home territory or, at worst, over Soviet lines. Any Germans forced to bail out or crash land in friendly territory could quickly return to their units, and while escaping from behind Soviet lines was no easy task, it was still simpler than an American or British pilot trying to escape back to England. Hartmann himself admits to 14 crash landings, including at least 1 in Soviet territory. Had he been flying for an Allied air force, any of these would have likely resulted in his capture and imprisonment, ending his streak prematurely.

As far as the Tuskegee Airmen, 761st Tank Battalion, 442nd RCT, and 555th Parachute Battalion are concerned, it's shortsighted to think that their war records are largely the product of PC thinking. The 442nd, for example, stands as one of the most decorated units in the history of the U.S. military, including an unusually high number of Medal of Honor recipients. As to why these units performed so admirably, in my opinion it's a combination of two things - a desire to show others that they measure up (in this case, to their white counterparts), and fear of being relegated to lesser units (in this case, noncombatant units) if they fail. You'll find this mindset is a common theme in the training of any modern elite unit, so is it really surprising that these segregated units performed as elites?

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Majorsam
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Howdy Meka! Welcome to the boards.

You raise an excellent point regarding all of them...but at the same time I have my nagging doubts. The 442nd clearly had a lot to prove and, as I said, performed admirably. But I am hesitant to use medals earned as any kind of metric for success. The 442 got a lot of publicity during the war because they were different. Stands to reason that the powers that be might be inclined to give them more medals. As for medals of honor, that goes doubly. 22 MofH were given as upgrades some 50 years after the fact. While I'm certain that some were merited, it seems that there were many soldiers in other regiments whose exploits could have been reviewed as well...but won't be.

But I digress.

I concede that the listed units all did well - indeed excellent in combat (with the exception of the 555th which was never given the opportunity). I just point out that many of the claims are inflated. My point, incidently, isn't limited to the segregated units...I am always amused by the number of people that think WWII was won by the Band of Brothers...who only spent about 40 days in actual combat. It was won by units like the 4th ID that spent over 400 days in combat.

As an addendum...you are completely correct about the elite draw. I checked and the 555th was drawn mainly from the 92nd ID. If I had a choice I'd have definately volunteered given the alternative of serving with the 92nd or 91st.

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Troberg
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quote:
I was going to suggest sorties-per-kill myself as a better statistic for measuring pilot skill
I don't like that metric either, as some pilots flew many missions where they were not likely to meet enemies. Victories-per-engagement would be better.

Then, of course, that number should be modified for such feats as Illu Juutilainen who scored 94 victories (most of them outnumbered against superior aircraft) without a single bullet hole in his own aircraft.

quote:
I am always amused by the number of people that think WWII was won by the Band of Brothers...who only spent about 40 days in actual combat. It was won by units like the 4th ID that spent over 400 days in combat.
I'm amused at people who think it was won by Britain and USA. Sure, they did their part, but it was the Soviets that broke the back of Germany and who fought harder and longer under worse conditions than anyone else.

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/Troberg

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Majorsam
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I'm amused at people who think it was won by Britain and USA. Sure, they did their part, but it was the Soviets that broke the back of Germany and who fought harder and longer under worse conditions than anyone else.

Please don't count me among them. Without the Soviet Union the war would have been much longer & more painful for Britain & the USA.

Of course, without massive material help from the US, the Soviet Union would have suffered far worse than it did.

Yes, I like Kill-to-engagement ratio as well. I hadn't heard of Juutilainen...a remarkable record. However, you have exaggerated his record in at least one aspect. According to Wiki, he was shot down by friendly fire. Perhaps not a bullet, but he did get hit by something. [Smile]

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Casey, making hot chocolate
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quote:
Originally posted by Majorsam:
I think it is difficult to annoint German pilots as the best for a variety of reasons given based on simply the number of kills. One should consider a variety of factors. One also can be number of kills per sortie. As an example, Erich Rudorffer scored a very impressive 222 kills (mostly on the Eastern front, but also on the West). However, he took 1,000 combat sorties to get there, and fought for pretty much the entire war from Battle of Britain to the peace. Major Richard Bong, one of the US great aces, scored a paltry 40 kills...but he did that in only 19 months of combat & 200 combat missions. By coincidence their kill ratio is roughly 1 kill in 5 sorties. Seems to me that if Bong had been allowed to continue he may have been in the same league.

From everything I've heard about him, Bong was about the best flier of his age. Credit has to be given to his craft -the mighty P38 Lightning, which was a excellent fighter- but his own skill was amazing.

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Troberg
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quote:
However, you have exaggerated his record in at least one aspect. According to Wiki, he was shot down by friendly fire.
Oops, I missed that. Still, friendly fire tends to kill you in a friendly way, so it doesn't count. Or something...

Ivan Kozhedub, the leading Soviet ace, had 62 victories, but he also shot down two US Mustangs which attacked him as they mistook his aircraft for a German aircraft. These two victories are not counted toward his victories. Personally, I think they should be, as it was still victories in combat.

quote:
Credit has to be given to his craft -the mighty P38 Lightning, which was a excellent fighter
Actually, as beatiful as it was, it was not very good, and it quickly became overtaken by newer aircraft. It had its day in the beginning of the war, but it didn't last very long.

It also had some serious mistakes, most prominently that the propellers rotated in the wrong direction, making it very hard to fly on one engine. The emergency procedure for landing with one engine was "Find an place to land straight in front of you. Don't try to make a turn.".

Still, it's one of the most beautiful aircraft ever made.

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/Troberg

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snopes
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Setting the record straight on the Tuskegee Airmen

Two historians doubt the black pilots never lost a bomber to enemy fire. Some veterans call for more research.

http://www.latimes.com/news/printedition/asection/la-na-tuskegee24dec24,1,4817817.story

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Meka
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quote:
Originally posted by Troberg:
[QB]
quote:
I was going to suggest sorties-per-kill myself as a better statistic for measuring pilot skill
I don't like that metric either, as some pilots flew many missions where they were not likely to meet enemies. Victories-per-engagement would be better.
I suppose we could go back and forth on this for ages, but this would depend on your definition of "engagement". How do you weight a one-on-one encounter as opposed to a giant furball? Do kills of bomber or transport aircraft count differently than fighter vs. fighter engagements? Are there deductions for suffering battle damage or losing one's own aircraft? The list of possible fudge-factors is endless. I do agree it's probably a better measure than kills-per-sortie, though.

quote:
I concede that the listed units all did well - indeed excellent in combat (with the exception of the 555th which was never given the opportunity). I just point out that many of the claims are inflated. My point, incidently, isn't limited to the segregated units...I am always amused by the number of people that think WWII was won by the Band of Brothers...who only spent about 40 days in actual combat. It was won by units like the 4th ID that spent over 400 days in combat.
If I'm reading this right what you're trying to say is those units that have been given extensive media coverage (historic and/or contemporary) whether black, white, Nisei, or Anglo-American (vs. Soviet) seem to receive more than their fair share of the "credit" for winning the war. I am a bit skeptical about your numbers (comparing a company's combat time to that of an entire division hardly seems fair) but consider any company from the 101st Airborne versus a similar company from the 82nd. The 82nd was in combat for at least a full year before the Screaming Eagles were even shipped overseas, but because of the level of publicity surrounding Bastogne, the 101st received a Presidential Unit Citation and worldwide fame.

Personally, anyone who served through that conflict has my utmost respect and gratitude.

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