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0:44:39 The Pentagon: After Operation Shingle

The Fight at Home: The Symbolism and the Stakes

By Eddie Brack

[1] Operation Shingle, a campaign against German forces in the area of and surrounding both Anzio and Nettuno, Italy, was initiated on January 22, 1944. The goal of the operation was to outflank German forces of the Winter Line and enable an attack on Rome. With one scene in Red Tails, depicting this one moment in history, the murmurs of Negro flight incompetence are, for a moment anyway, dulled. During an intense recreation of Operation Shingle, the heroics of the Tuskegee Airmen save the day with “8 kills in the air, 63 aircraft destroyed on the ground, no losses in their first wave.”

[2] The Red Tails fly away from this mission victorious, but in flying back toward the familiar skies of the United States, they fly into yet another battle. The fight at home is a fight to continue to fly and serve. This time the biggest form of resistance comes from their biggest forms of assistance, the Government and the Armed Forces. To the Tuskegee Airmen, this fight was becoming very, very old and quite intolerable. The resistance is fueled by prejudice and racism embedded in the roots of the nation from the beginning of its history. This prejudice and racism still existed within the Pentagon and the Oval Office, though it had become less acceptable over time in the eyes of the general public. These negative sentiments were actively combated by African American flyers themselves, by the NAACP, and by the media.

[3] Still, the scene in Red Tails subsequent to the great contribution of the Tuskegee Airmen to Operation Shingle clearly depicts rumblings emanating from the upper ranks: Colonel William Mortamus minimizes their accomplishments. With an easy blank stare on his face, Mortamus says to Colonel William Bullard, who oversees operations of the Red Tail fighter squadrons, “Colonel, eight German fighters or eighty German fighters, it still doesn’t change what I think of you and your boys.” This verbal slap in the face to Bullard is more significant than a simple interchange between two officers. Mortamus’s outright disdain is symbolic of the struggle of African Americans during this time. For the greater portion of the first half of the 20th Century, African Americans stretched out their hands as they sought sectors of life and work and business traditionally closed to them. But their striving for success and happiness was often resisted by the qualms of such unready men and women as Mortamus who were ideologically conservative about such matters as negro rights, freedom, equality, desegregation, and the like. Therefore, their acceleration upward and onward was frequently shut down and marginalized. There was no option, no path of least resistance. African American competence and African American accomplishments were constantly silenced or glossed over. Black civilians and black service men and women were aware of the restraint and unfairness that would always be directed towards them so long as their skin tone was darker, but they didn’t let it concern them. They trekked forward ardently resistant and resilient.

[4] This scene captures African American attitude and spirit. After Mortamus denigrates the Tuskegee contribution to Operation Shingle, Bullard responds in three strong words: “We don’t care.” Seemingly in shock, Mortamus retorts, “Respect the uniform.” “Believe me, Sir, that is all I have respect for,” Bullard replies, putting the conversation to rest. Yet these few words embed the film with a new layer of depth. This exchange exemplifies the extent of African American patriotism in existence at the time in spite of the hardships that came along with it. This scene depicts a strong belief in the Constitution and foundation of the nation despite a lack of historical connectedness for African Americans. They stood and fought patriotically for a nation that seldom did the same in return for them. The essence of military service is self-sacrifice, to put your country and its people before the interests of yourself and family. To remain selfless amid racial tension and prejudice engendered as a direct result of one’s efforts to serve and be selfless is difficult yet commendable.

[5] The natural question is how the Tuskegee Airmen were able to maintain their heroic identity portrayed so well in Red Tails. How were the real pilots represented in the film able to maintain their patriotism and become war heroes when for so many years their country often rejected them? And this rejection of African Americans was not limited to those in pursuit of flight training and other military service endeavors; it occurred in all sectors of life in America. I believe that this very rejection, this very negativity that originated from the very place they called “home” was itself the impetus to continue on the path to goals, to dreams, and to ambitions. Colonel Bullard’s will to continue to lead his men into service is symbolic of how African Americans in America pressed on for freedoms amid adversity.

[6] Regardless of the success that would come, African Americans would leave a legacy. In their service as Buffalo soldiers, in the Harlem Renaissance, as Tuskegee Airmen, in peaceful protests and grass roots movements, adversity loomed around every corner, and nothing good was guaranteed to come -- but eventually it always did. With great will, with passion fueled by rejection, they would navigate the conflicts of our history, fighting not only for the moment but also for future possibilities. To open the realm of possibilities for future freedoms and future opportunities, selflessness was key and sacrifice a must. Sacrifice meant doing your job and providing service to your country as a Red Tail airman. It meant giving up your identity or not understanding it, and giving up glitz and glamor and fame for possibility. “At all costs,” advises Colonel Bullard, “you protect the heavies. One bomber, that's 10 men. We count our victories by the bombers we get to their targets, by the husbands we return to their wives, by the fathers we give back to their children.” That’s the essence of the selfless mission of the Tuskegee Airmen.