Charles Chenier, a former US pilot from the Tuskegee Airmen group, served a long and distinguished career during the second world war. Yet, despite his squadron flying more than 1,500 missions and never losing a single plane, he faced the harsh reality of prejudice in the armed forces. Creole servicemen were considered “inferior” by many of their white counterparts and it was 65 years before Chenier’s wartime heroism was finally recognised.
For young men like Charles Chenier, now 90 years old, and of Creole heritage, joining the USA Air
Force wasn’t an option prior to the second world war. The US Army Air Corps had been limited to white personnel since its inception in 1907.
The Army officer corps included a predominance of men from the South, essentially the old Confederate States of America during the Civil War. The belief that blacks were inherently inferior to whites was widespread across much of the US and particularly in the South, where segregation was still common. In fact, Southern military men had helped to write an Army War College study in 1925 that concluded black troops were, “mentally inferior and barely fit for combat”.
The Tuskegee experiment
This policy was challenged in 1939, when the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) confronted the armed forces’ segregationist policies. Civic groups and newspapers across the US began a public campaign to integrate the military, urging acceptance of African Americans into the Air Corps.
This led to an initiative known as the Tuskegee Experiment, a corps of airmen and maintenance crews comprised primarily of Creole and African American men. Members of the Tuskegee Airmen group made no secret of the fact they believed it was called an “experiment” because they were expected to fail.
It had been the NAACP’s intention that the black airmen would be fully integrated with the white. This was also the aim of the 239 black aviators who formed the National Airmen’s Association. Instead, the Air Corps created a segregated unit to train black pilots at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, refusing to bend to calls for full integration. The 99th Pursuit Squadron officially launched at Tuskegee on 19th July 1941.
From high school to war
Charles Chenier, an 18-year-old high school graduate, found himself thrust into this climate of racial segregation in 1942. He explained: “I finished high school in 1942. America got into the war in the December of ’41 and they were drafting people into the service. I went to California, working in a shipyard. I got drafted and was sent to North Carolina for basic training.
“At that time, the army was segregated into black and white. All they had us doing was cooking and driving trucks. The navy had blacks swabbing decks and cooking. I was in the army and I didn’t want to do any of that,” he reminisced.
Chenier continued to explain, “The air force personnel were all white. They had a few coloured people who could fly a plane, but they wouldn’t let them. The whites, at that time, thought the blacks were too ignorant to learn how to fly.”
Joining the air force
Charles was drafted, with a fellow African American, George Pitts, from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. “We were both 18 years old,” recalls Chenier, “I got a notice one day that the commanding officer wanted to see me. I didn’t know what I’d done wrong. I didn’t think I’d done anything. But he said I’d been selected to go into the air force.”
“In those days, all those who flew were professional people with a degree. We didn’t have a degree. We were also the youngest. We were both 18. I think they chose us thinking that we’d flunk out and they could say, ‘I told you so’.”
The Tuskegee corps became known as the Red Tails because of the colour of the tails of the airplanes. Following his training, Charles was deployed to southern Italy. There were around 900 men in the Tuskegee corps at that time and 496 of them found themselves en route to Italy via England. The journey wasn’t without incident.
Prejudice on-board ship
“When we went over to England on the ship, there were 490 of us and about 2,000 white soldiers,” Charles remembers, “The person with the highest rank on the ship oversaw all the troops. He was black and he was over all the whites too.”
“They would usually make it from New York to England in a few days, but during the war you couldn’t go straight. You had to zigzag for submarines, so instead of taking a few days, it took three weeks.”
The long journey didn’t go smoothly after the white servicemen objected to a lack of segregation on the ship.
“The whites figured they’d be over there in a couple of days,” Charles indicated with a smile, “They decided they wouldn’t eat in the cafeteria with us. They were just eating cases of cookies instead. But, after a while, they ran out of cookies. They finally decided they could eat with us. But they ate in one section of the dining hall and we ate in another.”
On the side-lines
On arrival in Italy, the Tuskegee men felt like spectators at first.
“We would just be playing poker at night time. We were the champion poker players of the world! We were practising flying in the morning, but it was like playing football: you can practice and practice and practice, but you never play in a game.”
“The Americans were suffering losses. I was led to believe that our commanding officer had asked them to let us fly, but they kept saying no. But I think they were about to run out of airplanes! They kept losing bombers and when you lose a bomber, that’s a big plane, with 10 crew. So, they couldn’t afford to lose too many of those.”
“After a lot of begging, they decided to let us fly.”
Charles Chenier – First mission
Even the aircraft that the African American pilots used were not of the same standard as those provided for the white pilots.
“When our commanding officer said we could fly, we went to the airplanes and they were old and patched-up,” says Charles.
“The attitude was, ‘It’s for blacks – they’re good enough for them’.”
He added: “When we went on our first mission, we were escorting the whites’ bombers to where they were going to bomb and back again. The first time we went, they counted the planes when we came back they hadn’t lost one bomber. The second time we went, they still hadn’t lost one. But they said that was just luck.”
Eventually, the Tuskegee Airmen were given new planes and after around four days’ practice, they were sent on missions to Germany.
Charles continued: “The white pilots were not stationed with us. They went from somewhere else. They wouldn’t tell us where from and we met them in the air. The first time I went over Germany, it was just like an ordinary flight and we met no German planes. We just went there and back.”
“People asked me, was I afraid? We were 19. We couldn’t die!”, Charles remarked excitedly and his eyes sparkled, “I enjoyed it. The next time I flew over, a German plane came towards us. We were 100 yards away. It sounds a long way, but in our planes, you could make it in a couple of seconds.”
Charles intercepted the German enemy plane and the pilot retreated.
“We completed the mission and came back. I said to myself, ‘I’m a hero,’ and I had my chest sticking out and was strutting! I knew I’d be getting a medal! Two armed guards met my plane when we got back. I got out and they said to follow them to the commander’s office.”
“When I got there, the commander said, ‘Chenier, do you know what you did?’ and I said, “Yes, sir. I ran them away’, but he said that wasn’t what he meant.”
In fact, Charles was reprimanded and was told that when he had veered out to intercept the German plane, he had obscured the bomber pilot’s view! “I told him that if I’d stayed on the same path, he’d have shot me down.”
The commanding officer remained unimpressed, however, “He growled at me for two weeks – as if I cared,” Charles recalled with a wry smile, “After that, our unit flew over 1,500 missions and in all those missions, we never lost a bomber. But we didn’t get credit for anything.”
“We came back to the US and we were training to go to Japan. But the Japanese surrendered, so we didn’t have to go to Japan.”
After the war, Charles recollects arriving back in the United States. Many of the white pilots were met off the plane by high-ranking air force personnel and congratulated for their efforts, or received official notification in the mail within two days.
“We didn’t get credit for anything until about 65 years later, when they sent me a letter and I’d forgotten what I’d got it for!” Charles mused.
After the war, he taught welding at a training school for four years, but eventually went back to finish his education.
“I was staying with my parents. My mother kept asking me, ‘Why don’t you go back to school? Why don’t you go to college? All your brothers and sisters finished college. Why don’t you?’ So, I finally went back and finished school.”
Charles became a physical education coach and met his wife, a teacher, who had just graduated from Boston University. The couple were married for 47 years and had three daughters, before her death.
Despite his experiences during the war, he has no regrets about his life. Charles is proud of his children, two of whom live in Alabama and one in Connecticut. He says he wouldn’t change anything.
After the war, a fair few of the Tuskegee Airmen went onto military careers, most notably deputy commander of the 332nd Pursuit Group, George S Roberts. In 1950, he became the first African American man to command a racially-integrated unit in the US Air Force and retired a full Colonel.
In the 21st century, Daniel L Haulman, of the Air Force’s Historical Research Agency, researched and produced a study, “Nine Myths of the Tuskegee Airmen”, confirming that they were certainly not the inferior flyers that their opponents would have people believe. He has set up a website, Tuskegee Airmen Inc, dedicated to honouring their accomplishments.
Today, more than 70 years after the end of the second world war, racial discrimination still exists in the United States. In recent years, the Black Lives Matter movement has been set up to fight racism.
Despite the challenges faced by African Americans today, many still persevere and fight to the end for what they believe. This attitude was exemplified by the likes of Charles Chenier, who bravely served his country and overcame the discrimination he encountered during a distinguished military career.