The Tuskegee Airman
Baugh fought two fronts: the Nazis and segregation
Fame came late in life to Howard L. Baugh Sr. It took half-a-century after World War II ended before Baugh and his fellow fighter pilots in the Tuskegee Airmen became well-known, thanks to an HBO movie.
Fame came late. But Baugh was ahead of his time. With the airmen, he helped to establish a new level of air dominance in the European theater with successes that laid the foundation for desegregation of the military in 1948.
“It just goes to show that ordinary people given the proper training and opportunity can do extraordinary things,” Baugh said in a 2008 interview, a few months before he died at 88.
A native of Petersburg, Va., Baugh signed up for the Army Air Corps, now the U.S. Air Force, after graduating from Virginia State College in 1941. He trained at Tuskegee, a historically black university in Alabama that churned out 996 pilots between 1940 and 1946, deploying 355 of them to war.
“Before 1941, there were no African Americans in the Army Air Corps, and that’s the way they wanted it,” Baugh said. “They didn’t think we had what it took to operate a machine as complicated as an aircraft.”
The heroic African American squadron proved otherwise. Known for the distinctive red tails on their fighters, they provided support for all-white bomber crews, and never lost an assignment. “They had no idea their red escorts were black,” Baugh said of the bomber pilots. “We escorted bombers on over 200 missions and never lost one we escorted.”
Baugh served in North Africa, Sicily and Italy, flying 136 combat missions and shooting down a German fighter plane over Italy with the 99th Pursuit Squadron in 1944.
“It was scary,” he said. “It all depended on what we were doing as to how scary it was, but it was really scary when we were getting shot at.”
For his 16 months in combat, Baugh was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and Air Medal with three Oak Leaf Clusters, among a bevy of medals. He retired as a lieutenant colonel in 1967 and worked for Kodak for many years. A bronze statue of Baugh is on display at the Black History Museum & Cultural Center of Virginia.
Baugh’s sons, Richard and Howard Jr., keep the flames burning by addressing civic and school groups on the role of the Tuskegee Airmen with a callout to their dad, as at a recent presentation at the Virginia War Memorial.
“I accompanied him one time to do a talk like this and somebody asked him, ‘What do you think your greatest accomplishment was?’” Howard Jr. says. “And he said, ‘My three sons.’”
For more on Baugh, visit hbc-tai.org.