World War II was a time in which America had not a man to spare. It was a war that required all of the nation’s resources, manpower, innovation, and courage. Aviation played a vital role. One Arkansan served as one of the first African-American flight instructors in history. Through his efforts, Milton Crenchaw, as part of the famed Tuskegee Airmen, helped train hundreds of pilots who helped turn the tide toward victory for the United States.
Milton Pitts Crenchaw was born in Little Rock in 1919, less than two months after the end of World War I. His father, Rev. Joseph Crenchaw, was a respected minister, tailor, and long-time civil rights leader in the city. The younger Crenchaw attended local schools, graduating from the segregated Dunbar High School in 1936. He received a teaching certificate in automotive mechanics from Dunbar Junior College before heading to Alabama to further his education.
By the late 1930s, war was growing ominously close to the United States. The importance of air power became clear to military strategists long before the war began. The ability of aircraft to deliver more precise reconnaissance, to transport troops to and from battlefields, and the ability to attack targets over a great range gave militaries with strong aerial components a distinct advantage.
African-Americans were not allowed to serve as pilots during World War I, but recognizing the shortage of pilots the nation faced, President Franklin D. Roosevelt pushed to have African-Americans trained as pilots in 1939. As pilots were all officers, a college education was required. As a result, Tuskegee University in Tuskegee, Alabama, soon became the heart of the African-American pilot training program. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, after a flight with the head of the Tuskegee flight program in March 1941, made sure that the airmen had the airport facilities they needed.
Crenchaw arrived at the university and began studying mechanical engineering and soon began participating in the Civilian Pilot Training Program, an Army Air Corps program that trained civilian pilots in possible preparation for future military service. He earned his license in August 1941 and began working as a flight instructor. He was the first known African-American from Arkansas to earn a license and one of the first Tuskegee flight instructors.
After the United States entered World War II after the attack on Pearl Harbor, training at Tuskegee intensified. In 1942, he became a supervising squadron member as he showed the young pilots all the intricate details of handling an aircraft in all types of weather and all types of maneuvers. While the scholastic aspects were handled at the university, the actual flight training took place at nearby Moton Field. Ultimately, Crenchaw trained hundreds of pilots at Tuskegee. Most of the Tuskegee Airmen served in Europe in the latter years of World War II, often as bomber escorts protecting American servicemen and ensuring the success of vital wartime missions. The Tuskegee Airmen, thanks to the training they received from Crenchaw and the other instructors, became some of the most decorated pilots of the war.
Inspired by his wartime experiences, Crenchaw wanted to extend the growing opportunities in aviation to a new generation of African-American pilots. He returned to Arkansas in 1947 and approached Dr. M. L. Harris, then president of Philander Smith College in Little Rock, about the possibility of developing an aviation program for the college. The college established a popular aviation program at nearby Adams Field (which is now the Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport). He served as a flight instructor for the college until 1953.
In 1953, Crenchaw resumed his work training army pilots. He served briefly as an instructor at Fort Sill in Oklahoma before heading to Fort Rucker, Alabama, the next year. While at Fort Rucker, he became the first African-American instructor on the base. In 1966, he went to Fort Stewart, Georgia, where he continued to train pilots until 1972 when he began working at the base’s Equal Employment Opportunity Office through the Department of Defense. He retired in 1983.
In his later years, Crenchaw continued to be an advocate for the men he served with at Tuskegee. He pushed to include individuals who served in all capacities, such as cook, groundskeepers, flight instructors, and medical personnel, for veterans benefits programs. He was inducted into the Arkansas Aviation Hall of Fame in 1998. In 2007, Crenchaw along with the 16,000 participants at Tuskegee were collectively awarded the Congressional Gold Medal for their service during war and contributions to aviation.
In 2012, the film Red Tails premiered, dramatizing the experiences of some of the Tuskegee Airmen. Crenchaw appeared in Little Rock to introduce the film and discuss his experiences with an appreciative audience. He spent most of his last years in Atlanta. Crenchaw died in November 2015 at age 96.