“We knew the German jets were faster than we were. Instead of going directly after them, we went away from them and then turned into their blind spots.”
In a February 5 interview, Dr. Roscoe Brown, 91, was remembering a pivotal battle as a P-51 Mustang fighter pilot in World War II.
Brown, who lives in Riverdale, N.Y., and holds a doctorate in physiology, joined the Army Air Forces in 1943, trained in Alabama, and was sent to the 332nd Fighter Group at Ramitelli, Italy. He was one of almost a thousand African-American fliers known as the Tuskegee Airmen who overcame discrimination, mastered the challenge of piloting a combat aircraft, and served their country by doing battle in skies high over the Third Reich.
It wasn’t easy. The men already knew they could fly and fight. “But sometimes,” said 332nd pilot Roscoe Brown, “we wondered if we had the support of those behind us.” The AAF had plenty of officers like Col. (later, Gen.) William “Spike” Momyer who wrote that black pilots were “inferior,” and Maj. Gen. Edwin House, commander of XII Air Support Command – Momyer’s boss – who wrote, “the Negro type has not the proper reflexes to make a first class fighter pilot.” Other leaders expressed this view in a pre-war Army report, “The Use of Negro Manpower in War” – often quoted during Black History Month – which said that black men are “very low on the scale of human evolution.”
Fighter Group at War
None of this prevented the 332nd Fighter Group, commanded by Col. Benjamin O. Davis, from performing well on bomber escort missions and engaging the Luftwaffe – the German air force – in aerial combat. Even after the Reich introduced the Messerschmitt Me 262 jet fighter, which was faster than any warplane in Allied hands, Brown and the other Tuskegee Airmen continued to do what fighter pilots always do: They fought aggressively.
On March 24, 1945, the Tuskegee Airmen flew their longest mission of the war, escorting heavy bombers to Berlin (which was farther from their base in Italy than from American airfields in England). Over the German capital, they encountered Me 262s.
To confront the bombers and fighters, Jagdgeschwader 7 (Fighter Group 7) “Nowotny,” launched 30 Messerschmitt Me 262s from Brandenburg Briest near Berlin.
Wrote Brown in an official report:
“All of a sudden at nine o’clock I saw these streaks. I ordered, ‘Drop your tanks and follow me.’” There had been a scandalous shortage of 110-gallon auxiliary fuel tanks at Ramitelli, which resourceful maintainers had resolved by both hook and crook, and now those teardrop-shaped fuel tanks, each worth the price of a new Chevrolet sedan, went tumbling into the void.
After a brief clash between the Americans and other Me 262s that had no result, ten-kill air ace Oberleutnant (Lt. Col.) Franz Kulp flew straight at Brown. Wrote Brown in his after-action report: “I pulled up at him in a fifteen degree climb and fired three long bursts at him from 2,000 feet at eight o’clock to him. Almost immediately, the pilot bailed out from about 24,500 feet. I saw flames burst from the jet orifices of the enemy aircraft. The attack on the bombers was ineffective because of the prompt action of my flight in breaking up the attack.” The six .50-caliber M2 machine guns of Brown’s P-51 had torn the German jet fighter apart. Kulp sustained severe wounds but survived.
2nd Lt. Charles V. Brantley became the second 332nd pilot to engage an Me 262. Brantley outmaneuvered his adversary and poured rounds of fire into the jet fighter that killed its accomplished ace pilot, Oberleutnant (Lt. Col.) Ernst Wörner.
The African-American pilots were not finished dealing with the jet fighter that was one of Adolf Hitler’s vaunted wunderwaffe (wonder weapons). 1st Lt. Earl R. Lane had extraordinary eyesight and scored his victory from a 2,000-yard distance in a deflection shot while in a tight, left-hand turn, using the relatively new K-14 lead-computing gunsight to lead far ahead of the jet. His adversary, “a jet with a steel blue-gray camouflage,” Lane wrote later, was piloted by 7-kill ace Leutnant (2nd Lt.) Alfred Ambs.
Wrote Lane: “He did not quite fill my gunsight. I fired three short bursts and saw the plane emitting smoke. A piece of the plane, either the canopy or one of the jet orifices, flew off. I then pulled up and circled over the spot where he went down. I saw a crash and a puff of black smoke. Two seconds later, I saw another piece hit close to the first piece. I was at 17,000 feet when I broke off the encounter.”
Ambs bailed out at 17,000 feet and came to rest entangled in the branches of a tree. Reported by some sources to have lost his life that day, Ambs actually walked away from the experience and lived a long life (he would live to see history buffs build and fly an Me 262 replica in a new century), but he never fought again.
Proving the Point
The African-American airmen had long ago proven that they could fly and fight, and that they could escort bombers, but the battle in which they bagged three German jets clinched the deal. In his interview with Defense Media Network, Brown said, “High-altitude escort was probably the most important mission in the war and shortened the war by about six months because it enabled the bombers to go a longer distance into Germany and destroy their infrastructure – their rail hubs, oil refineries, and so on.”
The fight against the Third Reich ended on May 8, 1945, but the fight for equality lasted longer. Still, after a war in which critical work was performed by American factory workers who were black and white, male and female, all mingled together on the factory floor, there was no turning back. One of Brown’s fellow airmen, Capt. Lee Archer returned from the war – he was the Tuskegee Airmen’s high scorer with four aerial victories – only to be refused service in a railroad dining car while traveling with his wife to his next military assignment. Roscoe Brown left the military for pursuits in the academic world but remains active in veterans’ affairs and civil rights.
The desegregation of the armed forces in 1948 and the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s gave us a new world, Brown said. “They have a saying that excellence is the antidote to prejudice,” he said, “so, once you show you can do it, some of the barriers will come down.”