What do these two occasions have in common? More than one might think.
The link between the two is the Tuskegee Airmen of World War II, the first African American pilots in the United States military. The Tuskegee veterans, who have come to symbolize the early years of the civil rights struggle, often speak at events honoring Dr. King. Again and again, these pilots were victimized by racist War Department officials who regarded them as inferior and did not want them to fly. Yet again and again they persevered, and their extraordinary achievements in battle undermined the claims of their racist opponents.
Tuskegee squadrons shot down a total of 109 German planes and repeatedly won Distinguished Unit Citations and other medals for performance in their missions over Europe. They were so admired by their fellow pilots that bomber groups often specifically requested the Tuskegee units as escorts for their bombing raids.
One of those raids took place in the skies over Auschwitz.
Which is where President Bush's statement comes in. The president made his remark about bombing Auschwitz while visiting Israel's Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, where he viewed an aerial reconnaissance photo of the death camp.
Those photos were taken by U.S. planes in the spring and summer of 1944, in preparation for bombing the area -- not for bombing the gas chambers or crematoria, but rather for bombing German oil factories nearby.
On the morning of Aug. 20, 1944, a group of 127 U.S. bombers called Flying Fortresses approached Auschwitz. They were escorted by 100 Mustang fighter planes. Most of the Mustangs were piloted by Tuskegee Airmen of the 332nd Fighter Group. The attacking force dropped more than one thousand 500-pound bombs on oil targets less than five miles from the gas chambers. Despite German anti-aircraft fire and a squadron of German fighter planes, none of the Mustangs were hit and only one of the U.S. planes was shot down. All of the units reported successfully hitting their targets.
On the ground below, Jewish slave laborers, including 15 year-old Elie Wiesel, cheered the bombing. In his bestselling memoir, "Night," Wiesel described their reaction: "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 10 times 10 hours!"
But it did not. Even though there were additional U.S. bombing raids on German industrial sites in that region in the weeks and months to follow, the gas chambers and crematoria were never targeted.
The Roosevelt administration knew about the mass murder going on in Auschwitz, and even possessed diagrams of the camp that were prepared by two escapees. But when Jewish organizations asked the Roosevelt administration to order the bombing of the camp and the railways leading to it, the requests were rejected. U.S. officials claimed such raids were "impracticable" because they would require "considerable diversion" of planes needed for the war effort.
But the Tuskegee veterans know that claim was false. They were right there in the skies above Auschwitz. No "diversion" was necessary to drop a few bombs on the mass-murder machinery or the railways leading into the camp. Sadly, those orders were never given.
The decision to refrain from bombing Auschwitz was part of a broader policy by the Roosevelt administration to refrain from taking action to rescue Jews from the Nazis or provide havens for them. The U.S. did not want to deal with the burden of caring for large numbers of refugees. And its ally, Great Britain, would not open the doors to Palestine to the Jews, for fear of angering Arab opinion. The result was that the Allies failed to confront one of history's most compelling moral challenges.
The refusal to bomb Auschwitz remains the most powerful symbol of that failure. As President Bush said at Yad Vashem, Auschwitz should have been bombed. And the Tuskegee Airmen are eyewitnesses to the fact that it could have been.
Rafael Medoff is founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies.
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