In 1949 Black Airmen Won the 1st “Top Gun” Competition and No One Knows About It
Uncovering Hidden Black Excellence — Part
For Black History month, I decided to do a series of articles that highlight a few of the many many stories of hidden Black excellence. Make no mistake, these stories have been hidden, and hidden purposely. I do not want to get too much into the political and social implications, but I’ll say this. By continuously concealing significant achievements by Black Americans and Black people in general, the authors of history have nefariously created a world in which brilliance and blackness are total strangers. They have devalued blackness, and bolstered white supremacy. This is a disservice to Americans of all colors, races, and backgrounds. So, I’ve begun this series of articles to demonstrate that black excellence is the norm. It is as consistent and as impressive as any other color of excellence.
So, about the Black airmen in the title of this article. Did you know that in 1949, the United States Air Force hosted its inaugural Continental Air Gunnery Meet? It was the Air Force’s first aerial shooting “Top Gun” competition. Retired U.S. Air Force Lieutenant Colonel James Harvey and his 332nd Fighter Group were allowed entry into the competition. The 332nd Fighter Group comprised Tuskegee Airmen, the first African-American military aviators in the United States Armed Forces.
The competition required the completion of missions in aerial gunnery at 12,000 and 20,000 feet, dive bombing, skip bombing, rocket firing and panel strafing. The Tuskegee Airmen flew obsolete P-47 Thunderbolts, while their competitors flew more advanced P-51 Mustangs and F-82 Twin Mustangs. Yet, despite the uneven playing field, the Black pilots soared to build up an early lead, and ended up winning the inaugural Fighter Gunnery Award trophy for conventional aircraft. Sadly, this victory was hidden for almost a half a century. And the winning trophy? Poof! It disappeared as well.
The Air Force Association puts out an almanac each year highlighting the winners of Air Force Weapons Meets, 1949 through present day. Year after year, decade after decade, the winners of the 1949 weapons meet were listed as “unknown”. In an interview aired on CBS News on January 20, 2022, the now 98-year-old Retired Lt. Col. Harvey said, “They knew who won, but they just didn’t want to recognize us.” As of April 1995, the almanac was corrected to show the 332nd Fighter Group as the winners of the 1949 weapons meet.
However, the victory was not fully embraced and recognized until this year, almost 73 years later. Lt. Col. Harvey who had pressed the Air Force to honor his team’s victory was on hand for a special Air Force presentation on January 11, 2022. A plaque commemorating the first Top Guns was unveiled at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, where the original competition was held. And the trophy? Well, it was found by a historian back in 2005 in a storage facility. According to Harvey, when the historian asked why the trophy wasn’t on display, a guy there said, “We can’t display everything, but this item will never be on display.”
Well the trophy is on display now, and these trailblazing African American Airmen are getting the recognition they so richly deserve. “We weren’t supposed to be able to fly aircraft, we weren’t supposed to be able to win this competition, but we did and we were the best,” Harvey said in a statement released by the Air Force after the Jan. 11 ceremony.
So that’s the story of the first Top Gun winners. That’s but one story of hidden excellence, hidden heroes, hidden figures. When I posted this story on my personal Facebook page, a high-school friend had a wonderful comment. He said, “It is part of the [systemic] structures built up to create narratives which deny and hide positive role models of Black excellence. Imagine the impact on society had they [the victorious Tuskegee airmen] been given the recognition they deserved.” I’ll add. We know, and we live daily with the negative impacts of this information not being shared and generally known. Hopefully this article will help reverse that impact, and move “black excellence” into the foreground of our collective social consciousness.
Sources for this story include:
© Dave Anthony 2022