Wings for This Man: Celebrating the Tuskegee Airmen

Please Note: Primary source documents used in this post may contain harmful language. See NARA’s Statement on Potentially Harmful Language.

The First Motion Picture Unit

When America entered the war in Europe in 1941, the country’s greatest challenge was finding enough manpower to wage a two-front war. The country needed to quickly increase the number of soldiers in the military while also increasing the production of wartime goods and manufacturing. To do this, the United States Government employed several strategies to garner the support of the American people. One such tactic the government relied on heavily was the production of public relations materials including propaganda. The U.S. Government produced posters, pamphlets, newsreels, radio shows and propaganda films to encourage citizens to join the war effort. 

By July of 1942, the need for a steady production of instructional films, morale-boosting materials and propaganda films, led to the creation of the First Motion Picture Unit. The First Motion Picture Unit, part of the U.S. Army Air Forces, was the first military unit to be made up entirely of Hollywood professionals. Veteran actors and directors such as Clark Gable, William Holden, Clayton Moore, Ronald Reagan, John Sturges and John Houston were all enlisted to produce training and propaganda films for the military. Of the more than 400 films produced by the unit, some of the best known include Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress, The Last Bomb and Wings for This Man.

Still from 342-SFP-151

Wings for this Man 

Wings for This Man was produced in 1945 by the First Motion Picture Unit. The film, narrated by Ronald Reagan, celebrates the training, skill, bravery, and contributions of the Tuskegee Airmen. The purpose of this film is twofold, to convince military leadership and the general public that Black soldiers were skillful and reliable pilots and to bolster the support of Black Americans. It starts by showing the audience a typical day in the life of a fighter patrol in Europe. Despite the constant danger of the mission depicted, the pilots are successful thanks to the “good, wonderful planes” and their pilots. The film then cuts to the pilots responsible for the successful mission, introducing the audience to the Tuskegee Airmen.

Clip from 342-SFP-151

The film continues, discussing the history, development, and importance of the Tuskegee Institute, now known as Tuskegee University, and how the school influenced the development of the military training center. By the outbreak of World War II, Tuskegee Institute, founded in 1881, had been serving as a center of learning for Black Americans for decades, providing an education in a variety of disciplines including aviation training. Because Black Americans were excluded from pilot training programs in the 1930s, Tuskegee created a pilot training program, graduating the first civilian pilot students in May of 1940. Because of the successful program and existing infrastructure, the military selected the University’s Moton Field to train Black pilots for military service.

Clip from 342-SFP-151

The next sequence of shots highlight the construction of the airfield and training facilities before following the soldiers as they attend classes in math, science, and mechanics. Other parts of their training are also depicted, such as flight simulation and exercise. The film explains that all aspects of training the Tuskegee Airmen receive are necessary to create the best-trained pilots, setting them up for success. The ending of the film celebrates the accomplishments of the airmen and shows the three-year anniversary ceremony of Tuskegee Airfield.

Clip from 342-SFP-151
Clip from 342-SFP-151

History of the Tuskegee Airmen

Due to racism and segregation in the US military, Black Americans were not permitted to serve as pilots or aerial observers during WWI. It was only after two decades of advocacy by Black Americans that the military permitted Black pilots. Because the armed forces were segregated at this time, these pilots were assigned to their own squadrons and trained at Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama. Between 1941 and 1946, roughly 15,000 soldiers trained as pilots, navigators, bombardiers, instructors mechanics, and nurses at the segregated base before deploying overseas.

The Tuskegee Airmen flew more than 1500 missions and 15,000 sorties between May 1943 and June 1945, destroying 261 enemy aircraft. They first escorted the 12th Air Force using the Curtiss P-40 Warhawk, a prewar plane that was almost obsolete by the start of WWII, and the Bell P-39 Airacobra. They were then assigned to escort heavy bombers of the 15th Air Force using the P-47 Thunderbolt and P-51 Mustang. The Tuskegee Airmen were so good at their jobs that they were in constant demand, with allied bomber crews often requesting their escort. They had one of the lowest loss records on any escort fighter group. In all, the airmen won over 850 medals including, at least 60 Purple Hearts, fourteen Bronze Stars, three Distinguished Unit Citations, and 96 Distinguished Flying Crosses.

Clip from 342-SFP-151

Learn More

To learn more about the First Motion Picture Unit and their other projects, please visit the Unwritten Record Blog. Wings for This Man and additional films produced by the First Motion Picture Unit can be viewed in NARA’s online catalog and YouTube Channel

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