Tuskegee Airmen Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The 992 African American World War II fighter pilots, and the first African American U.S. military pilots, were so named because they trained at a segregated airfield near Tuskegee, Alabama, and at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.

Background

In the late 1930’s, American civil rights activists began to campaign for the desegregation of all branches of the U.S. military. Congress passed Public Law 18 in April, 1939, which authorized civilian training of military pilots, with an amendment to apply the law to African Americans. The U.S. Army Air Corps, however, refused to comply with the new law. Congress passed the Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTC) in June, 1939, and several African American colleges implemented the new program. Almost three thousand African American pilots graduated in just a few years; nevertheless, the Air Corps continued to boycott the acceptance of African American pilots into their program. By 1940, members of an African American pilot organization enlisted the help of Missouri senator Harry S. Truman to sponsor a congressional bill that would allow African American pilots to participate in the CPTC. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was committed to the cause of racial equality and helped to convince her husband, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, that the Air Corps should admit African Americans as pilots.

By late 1940, the War Department agreed to the formation of an African American fighter squadron, and in January, 1941, the Corps accepted its first group of African American cadets. The Air Corps plan, in an effort to determine whether African Americans were skillful and intelligent enough to become military pilots, called for the men to train at the Tuskegee Institute at Tuskegee, Alabama, and to do their combat flight training at Tuskegee Army Air Field, then under construction. The Tuskegee Institute, founded by Booker T. Washington in 1881 as a training school for African American teachers, was recognized as an ideal location for a flight school because the weather was good for nearly year-round flying and the grounds had ample room for an airfield.

The Ninety-ninth Pursuit Squadron was formed with an initial thirty-three African American officer pilots, who were all college graduates, and four hundred support crew. The first class, led by Lieutenant Colonel Benjamin Davis, Jr., graduated on March 7, 1942; subsequent classes graduated every five weeks. Less than two months later, a second fighter squadron, the One Hundredth, was activated. Because the War Department had no specific plans for the Tuskegee pilots after they completed their training, the Ninety-ninth and One-Hundredth fighter squadrons were not sent overseas after they graduated. Disappointed that they had not yet been sent into combat, morale among the men was low. In March, 1943, Eleanor Roosevelt again intervened and contacted Secretary of War Stimson. By the following month, the Ninety-ninth was deployed to North Africa, more than a year after they had earned their Army Air Corps wings.

Role in World War II

Based in Tunis, Tunisia, the pilots of the Ninety-ninth escorted B-17 and B-24 bombers over the Italian islands in the Mediterranean south of Sicily. The first Tuskegee pilot to shoot down an enemy aircraft was Captain Charles B. Hall, who downed a German Focke-Wulf 190 on July 2, 1943.

Lieutenant Colonel Davis was ordered to return to Tuskegee, Alabama, in September, 1943, to command the three African American squadrons, the 100th, the 301st, and the 302d, that would comprise the 332d Fighter Group. After the 332d Fighter Group had completed training, the three squadrons, under the command of Davis, were deployed in February, 1944, to an air base near Naples, Italy. The 332d was attached to the Fifteenth Air Force in June, 1944, at which time the 99th joined the 332d as the fourth squadron of the fighter group. The African American fighter pilots were assigned to escort U.S. bombers in their missions over the Balkans and parts of Germany, France, Italy, and Spain. Because the pilots of the 332d painted the tails of their P-47 Thunderbolts red, the bomber crews called the pilots the “Red Tails” and later the “Red-Tail Angels” because of the Tuskegee Airmen’s growing reputation for protecting the bombers.

As the end of the war approached, the 332d was involved in the final Allied offensive. The Tuskegee pilots escorted the B-17’s of the Fifteenth Air Force from Italy to Berlin and back. They flew their last mission in April, 1945, one month before the end of the war in Europe. Altogether the 452 pilots that had been sent overseas had flown more than 15,000 sorties and 1,500 missions with the Twelfth Tactical U.S. Army Air Force and the Fifteenth Strategic U.S. Army Air. They had suffered the loss of sixty-six pilots, and thirty-three others were prisoners of war. The group received more than 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses, 1 Legion of Merit, the Red Star of Yugoslavia, 8 Purple Hearts, 14 Bronze Stars, 744 Air Medals and clusters, and 3 distinguished unit citations. They had flown the most combat missions in Europe with the impressive distinction of never having lost one bomber to the enemy.

African American bomber pilots of the 477th Bombardment Group, a program that had begun at Tuskegee in September, 1943, were training for duty in the Pacific, but the war ended before these pilots could enter combat. The 477th is nevertheless remembered for its challenge to the harsh segregationist policies at Freeman Field, Indiana. More than one hundred African American officers entered the segregated officer’s club on the base. They were arrested but later released; the three men who were court-martialed were found not guilty. In 1995, the Air Force finally cleared the records of the African American men involved in the April, 1945, incident that came to be known as the “Freeman Field Mutiny.”

The War’s Aftermath

The 332d Fighter Group was deactivated after the war, but the 477th was renamed the 477th Composite Group under the command of Colonel Davis and remained a segregated part of the Air Force until July 26, 1948, when President Truman issued Executive Order 9981 mandating the desegregation of the U.S. armed services. African Americans were gradually accepted in all branches of the military and later fought alongside whites in the Korean, Vietnam, and Gulf Wars. In 1988, the U.S. Air Force Academy dedicated a life-sized bronze statue of a Tuskegee Airman in the academy’s Honor Court to commemorate the valiant Tuskegee Airmen of World War II.

Bibliography
  • Buckley, Gail. American Patriots. New York: Random House, 2001. A thorough study of the history of African Americans in the U.S. military from the time of the American Revolution through the 1990 Gulf War; exposes the racial bigotry of many politicians and military leaders who resisted integration of the armed forces.
  • Dryden, Charles W. A-Train: Memoirs of a Tuskegee Airman. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1997. In this autobiography, Lieutenant Colonel (United States Air Force, retired) Dryden writes of his military career, especially his experience serving in the Ninety-ninth Pursuit Squadron during World War II, until his retirement from the Air Force on August 31, 1962.
  • Jakeman, Robert J. The Divided Skies. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1992. A detailed account of the establishment of the flight training program at Tuskegee; covers the years from 1934 to 1942 and includes background information about the political struggle for the rights of African American aviators to serve in the U.S. armed forces.
  • McKissack, Patricia, and Frederick McKissack. Red-Tail Angels: The Story of the Tuskegee Airmen of World War II. New York: Walker, 1995. Excellent chronology of the Tuskegee program from its early years until 1948, when President Truman ordered the integration of the U.S. military.

Air Force, U.S.

Bombers

Fighter pilots

Military flight

World War II

The Tuskegee Airmen not only provided valiant service in World War II but also fought on the front lines of the battle to desegregate the U.S. military.

(AP/Wide World Photos)
Categories: History Content