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Pilots of the Caribbean

William Covington | 1/25/2012, 5 p.m.

The contribution of Black pilots from the Caribbean during the Second World War bears strong similarity to that of the now legendary Tuskegee Airmen, according to World War II Pasadena historian and aviation buff, Herman James.

Proudly stating that he had seen "Red Tails" twice and thought the movie was great, James still initially had some reservations. He was not high on the tame dialogue between pilots during dogfights, believing that in real life there would have been a hot trail of profanity flying through the air at speeds much faster than the P-51 Mustangs the Tuskegee Airmen flew or the Messerschmitts powered by Mercedes-Benz engines that lofted the German Luftwaffe pilots.

Then James pauses, reflecting on his statement and does a slight about-face.

"Maybe not," he says. "There are no atheists in foxholes and maybe these guys were c lose to God twenty-four-seven after experiencing the racism and strenuous training they had to endure."

James hopes someone in Britain will some day produce a movie about "our West Indian Brothers," he says. "The courage of these men is not generally known, even to the present Black British population."

The call to aid Britain during World War II was accepted by nearly 6,000 West Indian recruits of African descent who volunteered to serve in the Royal Air Force. They entered service during the beginning of the conflict in 1939.

The West Indians flew Spitfire Fighters, which were comparable to the P-51 Mustangs flown by the Tuskegee Airmen, but they also flew the huge multi-engine Lancaster Bombers, Sterling Bombers, and the all-plywood high-speed Mosquito.

Tuskegee had graduated B-25 bomber flight crews destined to the Pacific theater of the war, but they were too late to participate in combat missions because the United States dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, effectively ending the war in April 1945. Of the West Indians serving against the Axis powers--Germany, Italy and Japan--103 were decorated.

The highest medal earned was the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Distinguished Squadron Leader.

Those of Caribbean heritage expected to be warmly welcomed upon arriving in Britain, but most faced similar discrimination as the Tuskegee Airmen faced, but not as severe. The Tuskegee Airmen, James believes, were exposed to more emotional scarring than their West Indian counterparts who grew up in the more racially tolerable British Commonwealth.

The formal color bar in Britain had been lifted in 1939; however, according to the BBC (British Broadcasting Co.), Prime Minister Winston Churchill had directed by telegram that every British embassy, the High Commission and the British military do whatever they could to prevent Blacks from serving in the armed forces.

As a result of Churchill's actions, some West Indians became Canadian citizens and were thereby able to join Royal Air Force (RAF). Between 1940 and 1942 a total of 3,000 West Indians enlisted in the RAF. This was a small number in comparison to the overall size of the RAF, which was about 55,000, but the extra aid was sorely needed due to a manpower shortage in Britain. It proved to be enough to make a difference in the war effort.