Who were the Tuskegee Airmen?

Tuskegee Airmen at Ramitelli, Italy

Tuskegee Airmen at Ramitelli, Italy (Image credits)

The Tuskegee Airmen were a group of African-American military pilots and airmen who fought in World War II. They became known as the Tuskegee Airmen because all of them received their primary, basic, and advanced pilot training near the city of Tuskegee, Macon County. 

World War II and Segregation in the AAC

This was a global war which lasted from 1939-1945 involving almost every country in the world. Most countries were neutral in the beginning, but only few nations remained neutral to the end. There were two opposing military alliances- the Allies and Axis. The Allies that fought against the German, Japanese and Italian aggression and the Axis also known as “Rome–Berlin–Tokyo Axis“. 

Giving context to the Tuskegee Airmen with regards to World War II; in 1938 when Europe was on the brink of a second great war, president Franklin D. Roosevelt announced his intent of expanding the civilian pilot training program in the United States. 

franklin-delano-roosevelt

Franklin D. Roosevelt (Image credits)

Due to racial segregation at the time, much of the military establishment believed that black soldiers were inferior to the white counterparts and performed poorly in combat. As a result, black newspapers like the Chicago Defender and Pittsburgh Courier joined civil rights groups like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in arguing that black Americans be included in the U.S Army Air Corps (AAC) training. 

‘Tuskegee Experiment’

99th_pursuit_squadron

99th Pursuit Squadron (Image credits)

In September 1940, the White House announced that AAC would soon begin training black pilots. The training site was the Tuskegee AirField  in Tuskegee Alabama. On January 16, 1941, the War Department announced the formation of the 99th Pursuit Squadron, an African-American unit, and of the Tuskegee Institute training program. The segregated 99th Fighter squadron was referred to as an experiment by the Army

The trainees most of whom were college graduates or undergraduates came from all over the USA. The Tuskegee trained 1000 pilots together with 14,000 navigators, bombardiers, instructors, aircraft and engine mechanics, control tower operators and other maintenance and support staff. 

Benjamin O. Davis Jr. was among the 13 members of the first class of aviation cadets in 1941. He entered Westpoint 1n 1932, but his fellow cadets segregated him. He graduated in 1936, in the top 3rd of his class. He was the son of Brig. Gen. Benjamin O. Davis Sr., one of two black officers (other than chaplains) in the entire U.S. military in 1940. The father became the first African American to rise to the rank of Brigadier General. Benjamin O. Davis Jr., like his father, also rose to the rank of Air Force Brigadier General, and was the commander of the 99th Pursuit Squadron. 

(Credits: US Department of Interior)

The First Lady of the United States, Eleanor Roosevelt visited the squadron in 1941 and insisted that a black pilot take her up and photographs be taken. These photographs convinced President Franklin D. Roosevelt to send the unit into action, first in North Africa, and later in Europe. 

US Involvement in WWII

Initially, during the first two years of the war, the United States maintained a formal neutrality while supplying Britain, The Soviet Union and China with war material as well as deploying the US military to replace the British forces stationed in Iceland. Then Japan attacked the American naval fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on 7 December 1941, thrusting the US fully into war. 

In April 1942, the 99th Pursuit Squadron was deployed in North Africa. The group was assigned to the 33rd pursuit group, but were still segregated from the rest of the group. The 33rd’s commander, Colonel William W. “Spike” Momyer even refused to provide experienced flight leads to lead them into battle the first time. This practice was afforded every other group. They flew their first combat mission against the island of Pantelleria in Sicily Italy, on June 2, 1943.

The 332nd Fighter Group was constituted on 4th July 1942 and activated on October 13, 1942, predominantly manned with African-American personnel, consisted of the 100th, 301st and 302d Fighter Squadrons at Tuskegee Army Air Field, Alabama. Trained with P-39 Airacobra and P-40 Warhawk aircraft for an extended period of time as the Army Air Forces was reluctant to deploy African-American fighter pilots to an overseas combat theater. 

Flying escort for heavy bombers, the 332d earned an impressive combat record. The Allies called the Tuskegee airmen the “Red Tails” or “Red-Tail Angels,” because of the distinctive crimson paint prominently visible on the tail section of the unit’s aircraft. 

In the summer of 1943, 22-year-old Capt. Charles B. Hall was the first African-American pilot to shoot down an enemy aircraft, a German Focke-Wulf 190, Hitler’s finest fighter plane. He was flying an obsolete aircraft, the Curtis p-40 warhawk. The victory prompted General Eissenhower to come and congratulate Hull in person.

The 477th Bombardment Group of the US Army Air Corps was the last formation of the Tuskegee Airmen flying organizations, activated on January 15th 1944 at Selfridge Army Field, Michigan. When confronted with bigotry and illegal segregation beyond their capability to endure, they protested and risked jail, or worse, by challenging the direct orders of their commander.

They flew 1500 escort missions, and about 15,000 sorties between May 1944 and April 1945 when they stopped flying, some sources state that they never lost a bomber to an enemy fighter. Some sources however claim that this is a myth. Records have it that 66 black pilots were killed in combat, and another 84 men were killed in training accidents, either in the United States or overseas. Among their decorations were 150 Distinguished flying crosses. Squadron leader Benjamin O. Davis Jr. rose to the rank of three star General, and President Bill  Clinton gave him a fourth star post-retirement on December 8, 1998. 

Despite their achievements in war, the Tuskegee Airmen returned home to America, where they were segregated and their achievements not recognized. However, they continued to fight for social justice into the 1960’s and beyond. On July 26 1948, President Harry S. Truman signed Executive Order 9981 that ended segregation in the military and set the stage for equal treatment regardless of race. The segregated 332nd Fighter Group was eventually inactivated and the personnel reassigned into other existing squadrons.

The name Tuskegee Airmen didn’t come into wide use in the media until the early 1970’s. At the time, the mainstream media often called them an “American Negro fighter squadron”.