The Tuskeegee Airmen
A famous unit of African American combat pilots who served during World War II. Despite pressure from the black press and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, African Americans were prohibited from serving in the Army Air Corps throughout the 1930s. In 1939, African Americans were admitted to the government-sponsored Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP), but no black graduates were allowed to enlist in the Air Corps. Finally, in January 1941 the Air Corps announced the formation of its first black combat unit: the 99th Pursuit Squadron. Training was to commence at a new Air Corps field to be built in the vicinity of Tuskegee, Alabama.
This location meant that black trainees would have to live and work within the heart of the unreconstructed South. Many loathed the segregationist precedent, but officials, as well as the pilots themselves, saw an opportunity to prove their critics wrong. The “Tuskegee Airmen” quickly received a flood of national media attention, and it soon became apparent that much was riding on their success or failure. They would operate under intense public scrutiny for the entire war.
Training of enlisted support personnel soon began at the Air Corps Technical School at Chanute Field, Illinois, and in July 1941 the first class of pilots began military aviation training at Moton Field. All were previous CPTP graduates, with the exception of Captain Benjamin O. Davis Jr., son of the first black general in the history of the U. S. military. The younger Davis had endured four years at the U. S. Military Academy before graduating in 1936, and in 1941 the Davises were the only two non-chaplain black officers in the regular Army.
Captain Davis was rapidly promoted to lieutenant colonel and, in August 1942, assumed command of the 99th Fighter Squadron. An AAF inspecting general reported in October 1942 that the 99th was in excellent condition and ready for immediate departure overseas, but the unit was permitted only to continue training; by early 1943 morale had suffered considerably. Finally, in April 1943 the 99th Fighter Squadron shipped out for North Africa.
By June, the 99th was operating over the Mediterranean, but Allied aircraft already dominated the area, and contact with Germans was infrequent. In July, the squadron downed its first enemy aircraft, but a long dry spell followed throughout the rest of 1943. This was not surprising given the circumstances, but opponents of the “Tuskegee experiment” recommended, based upon the supposed poor performance of the 99th, that it be reassigned to noncombat duties. This recommendation was endorsed by officials throughout the chain of command, all the way up to the commanding general of the AAF, General Henry “Hap”Arnold.
In October 1943, Colonel Davis argued before the War Department’s Advisory Committee on Negro Troop Policies that the 99th’s combat record was comparable to similar white units and, further, that it had accomplished this despite the unique pressures it had to operate under. Further attacks from AAF leadership were undercut by the obvious success of the 99th following its transfer to the more active Italian Theater.
On 16 January 1944, during intense combat in the skies over the Anzio beachhead, the 99th Fighter Squadron downed a total of eight German Fw 190 fighters, suffering the loss of two Curtiss P-40s. The squadron continued to perform well in the combat that followed, but by mid-February German air activity had again tapered off and the 99th returned to ground support. Throughout February and March, the 99th was gradually joined in Italy by the all-black 332d Fighter Group, which when fully deployed eventually comprised the 99th, 100th, 301st, and 302d Fighter Squadrons, all now under the command of Colonel Davis. The new squadrons of the 332d first deployed with obsolete Bell P-39s, but beginning in April they began to receive very capable Republic P-47 Thunderbolt. In late June, the 332d began its conversion to the top Allied air superiority aircraft of the day, the North American P-51 Mustang, and by the end of the summer the Tuskegee Airmen had assumed as their primary mission the job of escorting friendly bombers, often deep into the heart of Germany.
Throughout the rest of 1944, the 332d earned a reputation as one of the better fighter groups in Europe. Bomber crews soon coveted the protection of the “Red Tails” (as they affectionately became known, due to their P-51s’ distinctive paint jobs), and in fact by war’s end the 332d had the unique distinction of being the only fighter group to have never lost a bomber to enemy aircraft. By late 1944, it was apparent that the Tuskegee Airmen had earned the respect of their fellow white units; although individual acts of discrimination did continue, their treatment by the chain of command was on the whole fairly good. They received widespread and very positive publicity within the United States and were even visited by numerous celebrities, including Lena Horne and Joe Louis. Their success continued into 1945: During one March escort mission to Berlin, pilots of the 100th Fighter Squadron downed three of the new German Messerschmitt Me 262 jet fighters; during another escort mission the following month, P-51s of the 332d downed 12 German aircraft for the loss of only three of their own. During its peak period of combat, from August 1944 through April 1945, the 332d destroyed approximately 500 enemy aircraft in the air and on the ground. Tuskegee Airmen received numerous decorations for bravery, including the Legion of Merit, Silver Star, 14 Bronze Stars, and more than 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses; in March 1945 the 332d Fighter Group received the Distinguished Unit Citation. These accomplishments did not come without a cost, however: Of the approximately 1,000 black pilots trained at Tuskegee, 66 were killed in action, 32 were taken prisoner, and some 80 pilots and support personnel were killed in training and other noncombat accidents through 1946.
The combat record of the Tuskegee Airmen is remarkable given the obstacles they had to overcome: racism in the service, segregation, lack of opportunity, and discrimination at home. Through it all Colonel Davis was their leader, the cornerstone of their success.
But the fate of the 477th Bombardment Group, many of whose pilots were also trained at Tuskegee, provides a different and instructive example. The unit was moved numerous times during 1944 and 1945 without seeing combat. In April 1945, approximately 60 black pilots from the 477th were arrested for entering a white-only officers club at Freeman Field, Indiana; later, 101 officers of the 477th were arrested when they refused a direct order to sign a document essentially acquiescing to the segregation of officers clubs. A subsequent investigation concluded that white-only facilities violated Army regulations. Due in part to the so-called Freeman Field mutiny, the 477th was never allowed into combat.
Following the end of the war, the 332d Fighter Group gradually returned to the United States, where most of its elements were disbanded as part of the general postwar demobilization; the rest were absorbed into what was now known as the 477th Composite Group. In 1946, the Army quietly closed Tuskegee Army Air Field. The influence of the Tuskegee Airmen, however, resonated for generations within the U. S. Air Force and American society in general. The 1948-1949 desegregation of the U. S. military owed much to the success of the 332d Fighter Group and the disgrace of the officers of the 477th Bombardment Group. Former Tuskegee Airmen continued to play important roles in the postwar Air Force, including most notably Benjamin O. Davis Jr., who retired as a three-star general, and Daniel “Chappie” James, who flew more than 60 combat missions during the Vietnam War and became the first African American to achieve four stars.
By the mid-1990s, African Americans represented more than 5 percent of the officer corps and 17 percent of the enlisted personnel in the U. S. Air Force. Recent years have seen an explosion of interest in the Tuskegee Airmen, and in November 1998 President Bill Clinton approved a congressional resolution authorizing the creation of the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site at Moton Field in Tuskegee, Alabama.
References Davis, Benjamin O. Jr. Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., American: An Autobiography. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991. Dryden, Charles W., with a Foreword by Benjamin O. Davis Jr. ATrain: Memoirs of a Tuskegee Airman. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1997. MacGregor, Morris J. Jr. Integration of the Armed Forces, 1940-1965. Defense Studies Series. Washington, DC: Center of Military History. Sandler, Stanley. Segregated Skies: All-Black Combat Squadrons of World War II. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992. Scott, Lawrence P., and William M. Womack Sr. Double V: The Civil Rights Struggle of the Tuskegee Airmen. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1994.