by Rafael Medoff
The recent passing of Cleveland native Charles E. McGee has drawn attention to the history of the Tuskegee Airmen, the all-Black units of American military aviators in World War II, of whom McGee was one of the last surviving members.
While the achievements of the Tuskegee pilots have received belated acknowledgment in recent decades, it is not widely known that their story also has an important connection to the ongoing public debate over whether the United States should use its military power for humanitarian objectives overseas.
Lt. McGee and his fellow-Tuskegee Airmen (the name refers to the Alabama site where they trained) excelled in battle, shooting down more than 100 German planes and winning countless medals and citations. They were so proficient that bomber groups often specifically asked for the Tuskegee pilots to be assigned to serve as protective escorts on their missions.
Several of those bombing missions took place in the skies above Auschwitz, the notorious Nazi death camp in German-occupied Poland where more than one million Jews were systematically slaughtered in 1941-1944.
On August 20, 1944, for example, American B-17 bombers, accompanied by P-51 Mustang fighter planes from McGee’s 332 Fighter Group, were sent to attack German synthetic oil factories in the slave labor section of Auschwitz.
What McGee and his comrades did not know was that for months, Jewish organizations had been pleading with the Roosevelt administration to bomb the gas chambers and crematoria in Birkenau, the mass-murder section of the sprawling Auschwitz complex, just a few miles from the oil factories. They also asked that U.S. planes strike the railways and bridges leading to the camp, in order to interrupt the mass deportation of Jews to Auschwitz.
Government officials replied that air strikes on those targets would be “impracticable,” because they would require “diversion of considerable air support essential to the success of our forces now engaged in decisive operations.”
But that explanation was false. Plane would not have to be “diverted” from the war zones, because they were already in the skies over Auschwitz—as proven by the fact that U.S. pilots, including Charles McGee and other Tuskegee Airmen, repeatedly flew over, or near, Auschwitz.
The August 20 raid targeted oil factories that were situated less than five miles from the gas chambers. As the bombs fell, the Jewish prisoners on the ground below cheered. Elie Wiesel, the future Nobel Prize laureate, was one of those Jewish slave laborers. He later wrote in his best-selling memoir, Night: “We were not afraid. And yet, if a bomb had fallen on the blocks [the prisoners’ barracks] it alone would have claimed hundreds of victims on the spot. But we were no longer afraid of death; at any rate, not of that death. Every bomb that exploded filled us with joy and gave us new confidence in life. The raid lasted over an hour. If it could only have lasted ten terms ten hours!”
Twelve thousand Jews were being gassed in the Birkenau section of Auschwitz every day. Wiesel and the other prisoners knew that even a few Allied bombs could have made an enormous difference. Even a brief interruption of the operations of the mass murder machinery, or the deportation routes, could have saved many lives.
The order to drop those bombs was never given. The Roosevelt administration knew about the mass murder taking place in Auschwitz, and had detailed maps of the camp that had been provided by two escapees. But President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s policy was to refrain from using even minimal military resources for humanitarian purposes. He chose to turn away from one of history’s most compelling moral challenges.
The Holocaust, however, was not the last genocide, and every subsequent generation of Americans has had to face the question of whether the United States should use its military power to save lives overseas.
America did nothing to interrupt the genocide in Cambodia (1975-1979), Rwanda (1994), or Darfur (which began in 2003). The Clinton administration did belatedly use air power to stop ethnic cleansing in the Balkans, the Obama administration employed military force to rescue the Yazidis from ISIS, and the Trump administration twice bombed chemical weapons factories in Syria. But those actions have been more the exception than the rule.
Politicians often find reasons not to act against atrocities overseas. But those reasons seldom have anything to do with our knowledge of what is happening or our military ability to intervene. The refusal to bomb Auschwitz remains the most powerful historical example of the U.S. government’s failure to do what should have been done; and the Tuskegee Airmen were eyewitnesses to the fact that it could have been done. Tragically, both during the Holocaust and in our own time, American’s leaders have often proven unwilling to act when action was possible.
(As published in the Cleveland Plain-Dealer – February 2, 2022)