Friday, February 24, 2017

Joseph C. White - A Tuskegee Airmen Pilot

By Ellen Robison

World War II brought many changes to American society, but the United States military remained racially segregated until 1948. The Department of War established separate units for African-American soldiers. One such group was the 332nd Fighter Group, part of the famed Tuskegee Airmen. The Tuskegee Airmen consisted of African-American pilots and support staff who graduated from the Tuskegee Institute program that was created in 1941. While the program began as an experiment to determine the capabilities of African Americans in the Army Air Force, their performance earned them respect among their white comrades. One of these airmen was fighter pilot Lieutenant Joseph Clyde White of the 301st Squadron.

Cadet Joseph C. White, 1943. Record Group 237 - World War II Veteran Surveys.
Tennessee State Library & Archives

White was born in Lawrence County, Alabama in 1921, but grew up in Chattanooga, where he lived with his aunt in the 1930s. He joined the Tuskegee cadet program in 1943 to become a pilot. During his service, he spent nine months on air assignments in North Africa, Italy, France and Germany. The Allied bomber groups had sustained high casualty rates during their bombing runs over Europe and North Africa. They were desperate to find fighters who could successfully escort them on their missions and engage enemy fighters when necessary. The Red Tails, as they were known because of the red paint on the tails of their aircraft, became a popular choice for these missions as a result of their low rate of bomber casualties.

Lieutenant Joseph C. White, 1943. Record Group 237 – World War II Veteran Surveys
Tennessee State Library & Archives

White described his service in a veteran survey collected by the Tennessee State Library & Archives in 1996. In his responses, White remarked that he felt his greatest success during service was “not losing a single Allied Bomber to Enemy fighters.” Despite the work the Tuskegee Airmen were doing to prove African Americans were indeed highly capable of maneuvering combat aircraft, their standard of living in the U.S. Army Air Corps was less than ideal. In his survey, White stated that the living conditions for officers in the 301st Squadron were poor and there were no recreational activities “structured for Negro troops.” He also notes that although he “disliked segregation of the races most,” his experiences with the Tuskegee Airmen provided him with opportunities after the war.

Joseph C. White Survey, pages 1-4. Record Group 237 - WWII Veteran Surveys
Tennessee State Library & Archives

The United States government provided discharged military personnel with access to education through the G. I. Bill. White used this benefit to obtain his bachelor’s degree in physics from Tennessee State University. He continued with his education, receiving two master’s degrees in science education and administration as well as a doctorate in physics. White used his knowledge to become an instructor in flight, radar and electronics. He also worked as a physicist and teacher, establishing an electronics program at Pearl High School in Nashville. After his retirement, White frequently appeared at speaking engagements to discuss his role in the Tuskegee Airmen and the experiences he had as a pilot during World War II.

Flight Instructor Joseph C. White, 1944. Record Group 237 – World War II Veteran Surveys
Tennessee State Library & Archives

The success of the Tuskegee program may have been a contributing factor in President Truman’s decision to issue Executive Order 9981 in July of 1948, which led to the desegregation of the armed forces. In fact, the leaders of the newly created U. S. Air Force had already determined that integration was necessary for effective military service and had declared their intentions to integrate the Air Force as early as April 1948. The program’s notoriety provided a concrete example of African Americans exceeding expectations and helped set the stage for the Civil Rights Movement that would follow over the next two decades.

To learn more about the wide variety of African American collections and online resources available at the Library & Archives, visit:

The Tennessee State Library and Archives is a division of the Tennessee Department of State and Tre Hargett, Secretary of State

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