LifestyleBlack History Month


The story of Charles E. Anderson and the Tuskegee Airmen

Posted at 8:45 AM, Feb 21, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-21 09:45:52-05

The Tuskegee Airmen, known for the painted red tails of the P-51 Mustangs they flew in World War II, are the first Black aviators in the U.S. Army Air Corps.

But these men were guided by the lesser-known Tuskegee Weather Detachment. Storm Team 4 Meteorologist Marisa Woloszyn has a look at how one man led forecasting at Tuskegee and taught minds for years to come.

In 1938, following the expansion to include Black people in pilot training, racial segregation remained in the armed services. White servicemen believed Black servicemen were inferior, despite all trainees being college graduates or undergraduates. But due to the segregation, all Black members of the U.S. Army Air Corps were trained at the Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama.

Charles E. Anderson was one of those men who arrived at Tuskegee after graduating from the Meteorological Aviation Cadet Program at the University of Chicago. It was a rigorous program that pushed young cadets, weekly tests in each subject were administered and only those that passed could continue on.

Anderson taught Black pilots about the weather and how it was crucial to flying. Those pilots would go on to escort bombers during World War II deep in enemy territory. Of the 200 escort missions the Tuskegee Airmen flew, they only lost 25 bombers, destroyed more than 250 German planes, nearly 1,000 rail cars and transport vehicles, and a German destroyer.

After a few years at the Tuskegee Army Airfield, Anderson became a weather officer at several Air Force bases around the country until his release from active duty in 1948.

He continued his work and education in meteorology and gained his Ph.D. in meteorology from MIT in 1960, the first African American to do so.

Anderson eventually came to work with Vern Suomi at the University of Wisconsin - Madison in 1966. Suomi was known for his growing research in satellite meteorology.

"It was a pioneering field and Wisconsin was laying the ground floor for it and that attracted Charlie Anderson. He had been interested in using photogrammetry, sequences of pictures, movies of clouds to understand how cumulus clouds develop, " says John Young, Professor Emeritus & Director, Wisconsin State Climatology Office.

Young started the same year as Anderson, focusing on numerical modeling in the department. He remembers Anderson's maturity.

"At times he had to use that maturity when intricate things were going on when he thought there was some unfairness in the university, some smaller things. He quietly worked behind the scenes to make that go on," Young said.

In addition to being part of the meteorology department, Anderson became chairman of Afro-American Studies. This department was created in the early ‘70s following a very turbulent period between the black students union and the university as a whole.

"He was an experienced veteran of the world. So, he knew how to make it all survivable," Young said.

Young also says he was knowledgeable, strategic, and always saw where he was needed.

"He was savvy. I really think that was important. A black man working his whole 40-year career in a white society. And even though the campus was a white society still, he knew how to navigate all those things," Young said.

Anderson was the first African American tenured professor on the University of Wisconsin campus. He left Wisconsin in 1987 for North Carolina State University, where he retired in 1990.

Anderson died in 1994, but his contributions to the universities and meteorology live on.

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