Download high-resolution image Look inside
Listen to a clip from the audiobook
audio pause button
0:00
0:00

Who Were the Tuskegee Airmen?

Part of Who Was?

Illustrated by Jake Murray
Look inside
Listen to a clip from the audiobook
audio pause button
0:00
0:00
It's up, up, and away with the Tuskegee Airmen, a heroic group of African American military pilots who helped the United States win World War II.

During World War II, black Americans were fighting for their country and for freedom in Europe, yet they had to endure a totally segregated military in the United States, where they weren't considered smart enough to become military pilots. After acquiring government funding for aviation training, civil rights activists were able to kickstart the first African American military flight program in the US at Tuskegee University in Alabama. While this book details thrilling flight missions and the grueling training sessions the Tuskegee Airmen underwent, it also shines a light on the lives of these brave men who helped pave the way for the integration of the US armed forces.
© Sherri L. Smith
Sherri L. Smith is not a pilot, but she makes an excellent passenger (unless it’s a very small plane). She is the author of numerous acclaimed fiction and nonfiction books for young people, including Flygirl, the winner of the California Book Awards’ Gold Medal; The Blossom and the Firefly, the winner of the Golden Kite Award from the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators; Orleans; and Who Were the Tuskegee Airmen? She teaches creative writing at Hamline University. Born in Chicago, Sherri now lives in Los Angeles. Learn more at SherriLSmith.com and follow her on Twitter @Sherri_L_Smith. View titles by Sherri L. Smith
Who HQ is your headquarters for history. The Who HQ team is always working to provide simple and clear answers to some of our biggest questions. From Who Was George Washington? to Who Is Michelle Obama?, and What Was the Battle of Gettysburg? to Where Is the Great Barrier Reef?, we strive to give you all the facts. Visit us at WhoHQ.com View titles by Who HQ
Who Were the Tuskegee Airmen?
 

January 20, 1945
 
 
The plane was not going to make it back to the airfield in Italy. US Airman Larry Fleischer shivered inside the B-24 bomber as it limped through the skies. 
 
World War II had been raging for more than five years. In late 1941, the United States had joined with England, Canada, and other countries to defeat Nazi Germany and its allies.
 
B-24s played a major role in winning the war. Fleischer’s plane, however, had been hit while dropping bombs on a Nazi air base in Austria. Two of the engines were out. The bombing doors in the belly of the plane had jammed open. The wind was roaring in at sixty degrees below zero. Fleischer had already lost a boot trying to unstick the doors. Now, he was afraid he might lose his foot to frostbite. The plane needed to land soon. But where?
 
Down below, the Italian coast was fast approaching. Fleischer and the rest of the crew scouted for a safe landing area. It was the copilot who found their best hope. He spotted an airfield, but it was one that didn’t show up on any of their charts.
 
“We really were expecting it to be a German field because why wouldn’t it be on one of our maps?” Fleischer recalled. If that were true, the pilot and crew would be taken as prisoners. But there was no other choice.
 
The pilot carefully brought the plane in for a landing and saw that this was no German base. The runway was lined with American planes! Splashes of crimson paint marked these P-51 Mustangs as Red Tails. These fighter planes were famous for protecting American bombers in enemy skies. The Red Tails had saved Fleischer and his crew on more than one bombing mission. As another crewman put it, “They were our lifesavers.”
 
Fleischer and his crew were so relieved! They went out to greet the approaching soldiers, eager to finally meet the Red Tails face-to-face instead of in the air. What they saw was the surprise of their lives.
 
“These are all black guys!” Fleischer remembered thinking. “It was a complete shock!”
 
Why was it so surprising to see black pilots in 1945? Fleischer was a white guy from New York. His entire crew of ten men was white. The only black people Fleischer had ever seen in the army were cooks and waiters. Until now.
 
The Red Tails weren’t just any combat pilots. They were the famous Tuskegee (say: tus-KEE-gee) Airmen. They were the first airplane pilots of color ever in the US military. (Military means the armed forces of a nation.) But to Fleischer and his all-white crew, their existence was “more secret than the atom bomb!”
 
 
Chapter 1: Two Americas
 
 
By the end of 1939, World War II had broken out in Europe. The United States was not involved in the fighting yet. But the military wanted to be prepared, just in case. So the army had started the Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP) at many colleges and universities. (Civilians are people who are not in the armed forces.) The CPTP was created to teach young Americans how to fly planes. If the country joined the war overseas, there would be more pilots ready for battle.
 
But not everyone could join the CPTP. It was for white people only. 
 
A 1925 military report said that black men were not as smart or as brave as white men. The belief was that black people couldn’t learn how to fly airplanes. But that was completely wrong!
 
Black people had been flying since 1917. An African American pilot named Eugene Bullard joined the French air force and fought against Germany in World War I. He won several medals for his bravery.
 
In 1920, a southern woman named Bessie Coleman went to France to learn how to fly. She became the first African American female pilot in 1921. Coleman returned to the United States, where she gave lectures and flew in air shows across the country. She wanted to raise enough money to start a flying school for African Americans. Unfortunately, in 1926 she was killed in a tragic airplane accident before that dream was achieved. Three years later, the Bessie Coleman Aero Club was founded in Los Angeles in her honor. 
 
In May 1939, two black men named Chauncey Spencer and Dale White flew an old airplane from Chicago to Washington, DC. They wanted to encourage other black people to become pilots.
 
In Washington, they met with a senator named Harry S. Truman. (Truman would become president of the United States in 1945.) Truman saw the rickety old airplane the men had flown. He said, “If you guys had the guts to fly that thing from Chicago, I’ve got the guts enough to do all I can to help you.”
 
Harry S. Truman was true to his word. Later that year, Congress approved six Civilian Pilot Training Programs for black people. The most famous of these programs was at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.

About

It's up, up, and away with the Tuskegee Airmen, a heroic group of African American military pilots who helped the United States win World War II.

During World War II, black Americans were fighting for their country and for freedom in Europe, yet they had to endure a totally segregated military in the United States, where they weren't considered smart enough to become military pilots. After acquiring government funding for aviation training, civil rights activists were able to kickstart the first African American military flight program in the US at Tuskegee University in Alabama. While this book details thrilling flight missions and the grueling training sessions the Tuskegee Airmen underwent, it also shines a light on the lives of these brave men who helped pave the way for the integration of the US armed forces.

Author

© Sherri L. Smith
Sherri L. Smith is not a pilot, but she makes an excellent passenger (unless it’s a very small plane). She is the author of numerous acclaimed fiction and nonfiction books for young people, including Flygirl, the winner of the California Book Awards’ Gold Medal; The Blossom and the Firefly, the winner of the Golden Kite Award from the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators; Orleans; and Who Were the Tuskegee Airmen? She teaches creative writing at Hamline University. Born in Chicago, Sherri now lives in Los Angeles. Learn more at SherriLSmith.com and follow her on Twitter @Sherri_L_Smith. View titles by Sherri L. Smith
Who HQ is your headquarters for history. The Who HQ team is always working to provide simple and clear answers to some of our biggest questions. From Who Was George Washington? to Who Is Michelle Obama?, and What Was the Battle of Gettysburg? to Where Is the Great Barrier Reef?, we strive to give you all the facts. Visit us at WhoHQ.com View titles by Who HQ

Excerpt

Who Were the Tuskegee Airmen?
 

January 20, 1945
 
 
The plane was not going to make it back to the airfield in Italy. US Airman Larry Fleischer shivered inside the B-24 bomber as it limped through the skies. 
 
World War II had been raging for more than five years. In late 1941, the United States had joined with England, Canada, and other countries to defeat Nazi Germany and its allies.
 
B-24s played a major role in winning the war. Fleischer’s plane, however, had been hit while dropping bombs on a Nazi air base in Austria. Two of the engines were out. The bombing doors in the belly of the plane had jammed open. The wind was roaring in at sixty degrees below zero. Fleischer had already lost a boot trying to unstick the doors. Now, he was afraid he might lose his foot to frostbite. The plane needed to land soon. But where?
 
Down below, the Italian coast was fast approaching. Fleischer and the rest of the crew scouted for a safe landing area. It was the copilot who found their best hope. He spotted an airfield, but it was one that didn’t show up on any of their charts.
 
“We really were expecting it to be a German field because why wouldn’t it be on one of our maps?” Fleischer recalled. If that were true, the pilot and crew would be taken as prisoners. But there was no other choice.
 
The pilot carefully brought the plane in for a landing and saw that this was no German base. The runway was lined with American planes! Splashes of crimson paint marked these P-51 Mustangs as Red Tails. These fighter planes were famous for protecting American bombers in enemy skies. The Red Tails had saved Fleischer and his crew on more than one bombing mission. As another crewman put it, “They were our lifesavers.”
 
Fleischer and his crew were so relieved! They went out to greet the approaching soldiers, eager to finally meet the Red Tails face-to-face instead of in the air. What they saw was the surprise of their lives.
 
“These are all black guys!” Fleischer remembered thinking. “It was a complete shock!”
 
Why was it so surprising to see black pilots in 1945? Fleischer was a white guy from New York. His entire crew of ten men was white. The only black people Fleischer had ever seen in the army were cooks and waiters. Until now.
 
The Red Tails weren’t just any combat pilots. They were the famous Tuskegee (say: tus-KEE-gee) Airmen. They were the first airplane pilots of color ever in the US military. (Military means the armed forces of a nation.) But to Fleischer and his all-white crew, their existence was “more secret than the atom bomb!”
 
 
Chapter 1: Two Americas
 
 
By the end of 1939, World War II had broken out in Europe. The United States was not involved in the fighting yet. But the military wanted to be prepared, just in case. So the army had started the Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP) at many colleges and universities. (Civilians are people who are not in the armed forces.) The CPTP was created to teach young Americans how to fly planes. If the country joined the war overseas, there would be more pilots ready for battle.
 
But not everyone could join the CPTP. It was for white people only. 
 
A 1925 military report said that black men were not as smart or as brave as white men. The belief was that black people couldn’t learn how to fly airplanes. But that was completely wrong!
 
Black people had been flying since 1917. An African American pilot named Eugene Bullard joined the French air force and fought against Germany in World War I. He won several medals for his bravery.
 
In 1920, a southern woman named Bessie Coleman went to France to learn how to fly. She became the first African American female pilot in 1921. Coleman returned to the United States, where she gave lectures and flew in air shows across the country. She wanted to raise enough money to start a flying school for African Americans. Unfortunately, in 1926 she was killed in a tragic airplane accident before that dream was achieved. Three years later, the Bessie Coleman Aero Club was founded in Los Angeles in her honor. 
 
In May 1939, two black men named Chauncey Spencer and Dale White flew an old airplane from Chicago to Washington, DC. They wanted to encourage other black people to become pilots.
 
In Washington, they met with a senator named Harry S. Truman. (Truman would become president of the United States in 1945.) Truman saw the rickety old airplane the men had flown. He said, “If you guys had the guts to fly that thing from Chicago, I’ve got the guts enough to do all I can to help you.”
 
Harry S. Truman was true to his word. Later that year, Congress approved six Civilian Pilot Training Programs for black people. The most famous of these programs was at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.

Books for Black History Month

Join Penguin Random House Education in celebrating the contributions of Black authors and illustrators. In honor of Black History Month in February, we are highlighting essential fiction and nonfiction to be shared and discussed by students and teachers alike. Black History Month – Middle School Black History Month – High School Explore additional books by

Read more

PRH Education High School Collections

All reading communities should contain protected time for the sake of reading. Independent reading practices emphasize the process of making meaning through reading, not an end product. The school culture (teachers, administration, etc.) should affirm this daily practice time as inherently important instructional time for all readers. (NCTE, 2019)   The Penguin Random House High

Read more

PRH Education Translanguaging Collections

Translanguaging is a communicative practice of bilinguals and multilinguals, that is, it is a practice whereby bilinguals and multilinguals use their entire linguistic repertoire to communicate and make meaning (García, 2009; García, Ibarra Johnson, & Seltzer, 2017)   It is through that lens that we have partnered with teacher educators and bilingual education experts, Drs.

Read more

PRH Education Classroom Libraries

“Books are a students’ passport to entering and actively participating in a global society with the empathy, compassion, and knowledge it takes to become the problem solvers the world needs.” –Laura Robb   Research shows that reading and literacy directly impacts students’ academic success and personal growth. To help promote the importance of daily independent

Read more