Who are the "Tuskegee Airmen", how did they come to be, and what is the signficance of what they accomplished?
"The Tuskegee Airmen" is the popular name of a group of African-American airmen who served and fought in the segregated Army Air Corps of World War II and post-war years, until the integration of the military services in 1949. They formed the 332nd Fighter Group and the 477th Bombardment Group of the United States Army Air Corps and later (post-war), the 477th Composite Group of United States Army Air Forces and United States Air Force.
The Tuskegee Airmen were the first officially sanctioned African-American military aviators in the United States Armed Forces. During World War II, African-Americans were still subject to the Jim Crow laws of legal segregation and discrimination. The American military was also racially segregated, and The Tuskegee Airmen were had to fight racial discrimination, both within and outside the Army. Despite these adversities, and with the odds deliberately stacked against them, they trained, flew fought and succeded with great distinction.
The Tuskegee Airmen were initially equipped with Curtiss P-40 Warhawks fighter-bomber aircraft, briefly with Bell P-39 Airacobras , later with Republic P-47 Thunderbolts, and finally with the aircraft with which they became most commonly associated, the North American P-51 Mustang. When the 332nd Fighter Group painted the empenages (tails) of their P-47s and later, their P-51s, red, the nickname "Red Tails" was coined. Bomber crews, appreciative of the 332nd's peerless bomber escort skill, applied a more effusive "Red-Tailed Angels" monicker.
Training of black airmen at Tuskegee did not happen by coincendence, nor an inspired awakening by the American military or political leadership...Following the shameful treatment of distinguished African-American veterans of World War I, prominent African-American civil rights leaders like Walter White and Roy Wilkins of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), labor union leader A. Philip Randolph, and Federal Judge William H. Hastile lead a long, very public struggle to secure opportunities for African-Americans in the military. With the obvious approach of WWII, these courageous civil rights champions were deterimned to secure the right of African-Americans to fight in America's wars and further demonstrate they deserved the same rights and priviledges afforded to white Americans. Under pressure from the national civil rights rganizations they led, and the court of public opinion, the War Department and the Army relented. In 1941, the U.S. Army authorized the first all-black Army flying unit, the now legendary the 99th Fighter Squadron to be trained and based in Tuskegee, Alabama. Assumng that black Americans couldn't possibly master the complexities of military aviation, and that the realities of life in south central Alabama would prevail, Army brass assumed this would be a short lived, politically correct, failed "experiment" they could soon write off and use to squelch annoying voices of civil right leaders and pesky white sympathizers... How wrong they were.
The Tuskegee "Experiment" began in June 1941 with the arrival of trainees for the 99th Pursuit Squadron at Tuskegee Institute, Alabama. Selection of Tuskegee as the
training base was no accident. Tuskegee Institute was one of several black colleges previously awarded a government Civilian Pilot Training program, or "CPT" contract. The War Department, realizing
war was probably inevitable and recogonizing the profound shortage of military pilots, contracted colleges and universities across the country provide initial flying training to promising male
students. The objective was to build a pool of willing, able young men who could quickly be trained as military pilots if war did come. To support it's CPT program, Tuskegee Institute built it's own
airfield, Moton Field (named for the preceding president of Tuskegee Institute, Robert Russa Moton), with funding from the Rosenwald Foundation secured with the help of Eleanor Roosevelt.
Hearing of the Army's plans to train negro pilots, and sensing the promise of the moment for both Tuskegee Insitute and black America as well, Mr. G. L. Washington, an electrical engineer at
Tuskegee Institute and the school's President, Dr. Frederick Patterson, wrote a proposal to the War Department. The proposal was to base training of negro pilots at Tuskegee Institute, citing an
already existing airfield and demonstrated success with the CPT.
As a result of the proposal, the Tuskegee Airmen were trained at Moton Field, and later at Tuskegee Army Air Field (TAAF), eleven miles to the west. After primary
training at Moton Field, pilot candiates moved to TAAF for transition training to more advanced trainer and front-line, combat aircraft. TAAF was a replica of
already-existing airfields reserved for training white pilots, such as Maxwell Field, only 40 miles away. With African-American contractors McKissack and McKissack, Inc. in charge, 2,000 workmen from
McKissack, the Alabama Works Progress Administration, and the U.S. Army built the airfield in only six months, on a budget of $1,663,057. Under the
watchful stewardship of an adept and savvy A-team of Patterson, Washington, the stage was set. Largely overlooked and forgotten, these two visionaries were the
Godfathers of the Tuskegee Airmen for without them, there would be no "Tuskegee Airmen". With their recruitment of Chief Flight Instructor Alfred "Chief" Anderson, the right building blocks
were in the right places, and the rest is history.
Since negro pilots were not allowed to train anywhere else, TAAF became the only Army installation performing all three phases of pilot training (primary, basic, advanced) at a single location. Initial plans were for 500 personnel on station, but by mid-1942 over six times that many were stationed at Moton Field and TAAF. Once fully formed, the 99th consisted of 47 officers and 429 enlisted men. Three additional fighter squadrons, the 100th, 301st and 302nd followed the 99th model soon thereafter, each with a similar complement of officers and men. These four squadrons, later to form famed 332nd Fighter Group, were backed by several thousand military and civilian logistics, administrative and support personnel.
The airmen were placed under the command of Captain Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., a black West Point Graduate and one of the few black commissioned officers in the U.S. Army., Tuskegee Army Air Field was commanded first by Major James Ellison. Ellison made great progress in organizing the construction of the facilities needed for the military program at Tuskegee. However, he was transferred on 12 January 1942, reputedly because of his insistence that his African-American sentries and Military Police would have police authority over local caucasian civilians on the base.
His successor, Colonel Frederick von Kimble, then oversaw operations at the Tuskegee airfield. Contrary to new Army regulations, Kimble maintained segregation on the field, in deference to local customs of the South, a policy deeply resented but initially accepted the airmen. Von Kimble, comfortable with marginalizing the potential of black Americans as combat pilots, was later replaced by Major Noel F. Parrish, a more progressive leader who would go on to successfully petition the Army and Washington bureaucrats to allow the Tuskegee Airmen to serve in combat.
The 99th was finally assigned to combat duty by late 1942, and left Tuskegee on 2 April, 1943, bound for North Africa, where it would join the 33rd Fighter Group, commanded by Colonel William W. Momyer. Given little guidance from battle-experienced pilots, the 99th's first combat mission was to attack the strategic island of Pantelleria in the Mediterranean Sea to help clear the sea lanes for the imminent Allied invasion of Sicily. The air assault on the island began on 30 May 1943. The 99th flew its first combat mission on 2 June, and was assigned mostly ground attack missions throughout the summer of '43, with only brief, occasional air-to-air skirmishes. The assignment to a predominantly ground attack role prevented the 99th from proving itself in air-to-air combat, which was considered to be the true measure of any fighter squadron. By the fall of that year, opponents of the "Tuskegee Experiment", both in and out of the Army attemped to use this as an excuse for removing the 99th from combat and effectively cancelling the Tuskegee Experirment, leading to a Congressional hearing on the fitness of Negroes as combat pilots. Colonel Momyer, having attemped to marginalize the 99th under his command, was a vocal and outspoken proponent of removing the black airmen from combat duty. However, Ben Davis, with the help of supportive white officers and officials within the Defense Department was able to beat back the challenge. With a new lease on life, the 99th moved on to Sicily and mainland Italy, proving itself more than able fighting unit and receiving a Distinguished Unit Citation for its performance in aerial combat during the battle of Anzio. In the meantime, the three squadrons of the 332nd, the 100th, 301st and 302nd Figther Squadrons, fully formed and based at Selfridge Field, Michigan, prepared to follow the 99th into war.
By the end of February 1944 the all-black 332nd Fighter Group arrived in Naples, Italy and joined the fight, flying P-39 Airacobras and later P-47 Thunderbolts under the command of the now Colonel Ben Davis. On 1 May '44, the 99th joined them on 6 June at Ramitelli Airfield, near Termoli, on the Adriatic coast. From Ramitelli, the 332nd Fighter Group escorted Fifteenth Air Force heavy strategic bombing raids up the spine of Italy and later, flying the long range P-51 Mustang, into Czechoslovakia, Austria, Hungary, Poland and Germany. Often escorting heavy bombers into the heart of the Nazi Empire, the 332nd built an impressive combat record. American bomber crewmen called the airmen the "Red Tails" or "Red-Tail Angels," because of the distinctive crimson paint scheme applied to the tail section of 332nd aircraft.
The 477th Bombardment Group:
With African-American fighter pilots being trained successfully, the Army Air Force now came under additonal pressure to organize a bomber unit. On 13 May 1943, the 616th Bombardment Squadron was established as the initial subordinate squadron of the 477th Bombardment Group. The squadron was activated on 1 July 1943, only to be deactivated on 15 August 1943, but by January 1944, the 477th Bombardment Group was reactivated. At the time, the usual training cycle for a bombardment group took three to four months.The 477th would eventually contain four medium bomber squadrons. Slated to comprise 1,200 officers and enlisted men, the unit would operate 60 North American B-25 Mitchell bombers. The 477th would go on to encompass three more bomber squadrons–the 617th Bombardment Squadron, the 618th Bombardment Squadron, and the 619th Bombardment Squadron.The 477th was anticipated to be ready for action in November 1944.
The home field for the 477th was Selfridge Field, located outside Detroit, however, other bases would be used for various types of training courses. Twin-engine pilot training began at Tuskegee while transition to multi-engine pilot training was at Mather Field, California. Some ground crews trained at Mather before rotating to Inglewood, California. Gunners learned to shoot at Eglin Field, Florida. Bombers-navigators learned their trades at Hondo Army Air Field and Midland Field, Texas, or at Roswell, New Mexico. Training of the new African-American crewmen also took place at Sioux Falls, South Dakota; Lincoln, Nebraska and Scott Field, Belleville, Illinois. Once trained, the air and ground crews would be spliced into a working unit at Selfridge.
Problems on the home front:
The new group's first Commanding Officer was Colonel Robert Selway. Like his ranking officer, Major General Frank O'Driscoll Hunter from Georgia, he was a racial segregationist. Hunter was blunt about it, saying such things as, "...racial friction will occur if colored and white pilots are trained together." He backed Selway's violations of Army Regulation 210-10, which forbade segregation of air base facilities. They segregated base facilities so thoroughly they even drew a line in the base theater and ordered separate seating by races. When the audience sat in random patterns as part of "Operation Checkerboard", the movie was halted to make men return to segregated seating. African-American officers petitioned base Commanding Officer William Boyd for access to the only officer's club on base. Lieutenant Milton Henry entered the club and personally demanded his club rights; he was court-martialled for this, and discharged.
Subsequently, Colonel Boyd denied club rights to African-Americans although General Hunter stepped in and promised a separate but equal club would be built for black airmen. The 477th was transferred to Godman Field, Kentucky before the club was built. They had spent five months at Selfridge but found themselves on a base a fraction of Selfridge's size, with no air-to-ground gunnery range, and deteriorating runways that were too short for B-25 landings. Colonel Selway took on the second role of Commanding Officer of Godman Field. In that capacity, he ceded Godman Field's officer club to African-American airmen. Caucasian officers used the whites-only clubs at nearby Fort Knox, much to the displeasure of African-American officers.
Another irritant was a professional one for African-American officers. They observed a steady flow of white officers through the command positions of the group and squadrons; these officers stayed just long enough to be "promotable" before transferring out at their new rank. This seemed to take about four months. In an extreme example, 22 year old Robert Mattern was promoted to captain, transferred into squadron command in the 477th days later, and left a month later as a major. He was replaced by another Caucasian officer. Meanwhile, no Tuskegee Airmen held command.
On 15 March 1945, the 477th was transferred to Freeman Field, on the verge of Seymour, Indiana. The white population of Freeman Field was 250 officers and 600 enlisted men. Superimposed on it were 400 African-American officers and 2,500 enlisted men of the 477th and its associated units. Freeman Field had a firing range, usable runways, and other amenities useful for training. African-American airmen would work in proximity with white ones; both would live in a public housing project adjacent to the base. Colonel Selway turned the non-commissioned officers out of their club and turned it into a second officers club. He then classified all white personnel as cadre, and all African-Americans as trainees. One officers club became the cadre's club. The old Non-Commissioned Officers Club, promptly sarcastically dubbed "Uncle Tom's Cabin", became the trainee's officers club. At least four of the trainees had flown combat in Europe as fighter pilots, and had about four years in service. Four others had completed training as pilots, bombardiers and navigators, and may have been the only triply qualified officers in the entire Air Corps. Several of the Tuskegee Airmen had logged over 900 flight hours by this time. Nevertheless, by Colonel Selway's fiat, they were trainees.
Off-base was no better; many businesses in Seymour would not serve African-Americans. A local laundry would not wash their clothes, yet willingly laundered those of captured German soldiers.
In early April 1945, the 118th Base Unit transferred in from Godman Field. Despite the fact African-American personnel held orders that specified they were base cadre, and not trainees, they were still subject to segregation and denial of base priviledges afforded their white counterparts. On 5 April, officers of the 477th decided they had and enough, and purposely tried to enter the whites-only Officer's Club. Selway, tipped off by a phone call, had the assistant base Provost Marshall (military police commander) and base billeting manager stationed at the door to refuse the 477th officers entry. The latter, a major, ordered them to leave, arresting them when they refused. It was the beginning of the Freeman Field "Mutiny", the first of several such mutiny's the airmen would stage in outright defiance of segregation and unequal treatment during the war.
In the wake of the Freeman Field Mutiny and the end of the war in Europe, the 616th and 619th were disbanded, as were the 100th, 301st and 302nd Fighter Squadrons. The newly returned 99th Fighter Squadron assigned to the 477th on 22 June 1945, which was reorganized and renamed the 477th Composite Wing as a result. On 1 July 1945, Colonel Robert Selway was relieved of the Group's command and was replaced by Colonel Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. A complete sweep of Selway's white staff followed, with all vacated jobs filled by African-American officers. the new 477th re-equipped with late model P-47s and prepared to enter the way in the Pacific. However, the war in the Pacific ended before the 477th Composite Group could get into action. The 618th Bombardment Squadron was disbanded on 8 October 1945. On 13 March 1946, the tnow wo-squadron composite group, supported by the 602nd Engineer Squadron (later renamed 602nd Air Engineer Squadron), the 118th Base Unit, and a band, moved to its final station, Lockbourne Field. The 617th Bombardment Squadron and the 99th Fighter Squadron disbanded on 1 July 1947, ending the days of 477th Composite Group, which would be reorganized as the 332nd Fighter Wing. The 332nd soldiered on in post-war peacetime at Lockbourne, until disbanded in 1949 when integration of the Army Air Forces was complete.
In all, 992 pilots were trained in Tuskegee from 1941 to 1946. 450 were deployed overseas, and 150 lost their lives in accidents or combat. The toll included 66 pilots killed in action or accidents, 84 killed in training and non-combat accidents and 32 captured as prisoners of war. The black air units that saw combat during the war were the 99th Pursuit Squadron and the 332nd Fighter Group. The dive-bombing and strafing missions under Lieutenant Colonel Davis, Jr. were considered to be highly successful. In May 1942, the 99th Pursuit Squadron was renamed the 99th Fighter Squadron. It earned three Distinguished Unit Citations (DUC) during World War II. The DUCs were for operations over Sicily from 30 May – 11 June 1943, Monastery Hill near Cassino from 12–14 May 1944, and for successfully fighting off German jet aircraft on 24 March 1945. The mission was the longest bomber escort mission of the Fifteenth Air Force throughout the war. The 332nd also flew missions in Sicily, Anzio, Normandy, the Rhineland, the Po Valley and Rome-Arno and others. Pilots of the 99th once set a record for destroying five enemy aircraft in under four minutes.
The Tuskegee Airmen shot down three German jets in a single day. On 24 March 1945, 43 P-51 Mustangs led by Colonel Benjamin O. Davis escorted B-17 bombers over 1,600 miles into Germany and back. The bombers' target, a massive Daimler-Benz tank factory in Berlin, was heavily defended by 25 Luftwaffe aircraft, included Fw 190 radial propeller fighters, Me 163 "Komet" rocket-powered fighters and 25 of the much more formidable Me 262s, history's first jet fighter. Pilots Charles Brantley, Earl Lane and Roscoe Brown all shot down German jets over Berlin that day, earning the all-black 332nd Fighter Group a Distinguished Unit Citation. By war's end, the pilots of the 332nd Fighter Group earned approximately 1000 awards and decorations for combat feats across the depth and breadth of the Mediterranean and European Theaters.
The Tuskegee Airmen were credited with the following accomplishments:
15,533 combat sorties for the Fifteenth Air Force (hundreds more earlier for the Twelfth Air Force), 179 bomber escort missions losing only 25 bombers, destroying 112 enemy aircraft in the air, another 150 on the ground and 148 damaged; 950 rail cars, trucks and ground vehicles destroyed (over 600 rail cars), and one destroyer put out of action.
Awards and decorations included:
Three Distinguished Unit Citations 99th Pursuit Squadron: 30 May–11 June 1943 for actions over Sicily.99th Fighter Squadron: 12–14 May 1944, for successful air strikes against Monte Cassino, Italy. 332d Fighter Group: 24 March 1945: for a bomber escort mission to Berlin, during which it shot down 3 enemy jets.
At least one Silver Star, 96 Distinguished Flying Crosses,744 Air Medals and eight Purple Hearts
Contrary to negative predictions from some quarters, a combination of pre-war experience and the personal drive of those accepted for training producd some of the best pilots and one of the highest performing units in the U.S. Army Air Corps. Nevertheless, the Tuskegee Airmen continued to have to fight racism at home. Their combat record did much to quiet naysayers and haters, including bomber crews who often requested them for escort. In 1949, the 332nd entered the annual Army Air Forces Gunnery Competition held at Nellis Air Base just outside Las Vegas, Nevada. The competition included aerial gunnery, bombing and strafing events. Still flying their propeller driven Republic P-47N Thunderbolts, (built for the long range escort mission in the Pacific theatre of World War II) while other unit flew the newer, jet aircraft of the day, the 332nd Fighter Wing took first place in the conventional fighter class. The pilots were Capt. Alva Temple, Lt. Harry Stewart, Lt. James Harvey III and Lt. Halbert Alexander. Lt. Harvey, who later went on to earn a Distnguished Flying Cross and a jet pilot in Korea said, "We had a perfect score. Three missions, two bombs per plane. We didn't guess at anything, we were good." After receiving congratulations from the Governor of Ohio, and Air Force commanders across the nation, the record of the 332nd's victory was downplayed and eventually buried by Air Force Officials embarrased by the fact that a negro unit was the winner of Army Air Forces most prestigious competition.
After segregation in the military was ended in 1948 by President Harry S. Truman with Executive Order 9981, the veteran Tuskegee Airmen now found themselves in
integrated into the newly formed United States Air Force, or making their way in new careers in the private sector. Racism was still rampant in both, and segregation was still the law of the land
across much of the county. Their fight for fair and equal treatment, basic human dignity and respect was by no means over. Segregation in the military did not die easily, and the Airmen continued to
bear the burden of being black in a white man's Air Force for the rest of their careers. However, so many persevered in the spirit of the Tuskegee Experience, achieved stellar records of
accomplishment in and out of the military, and set bold, high standards of performance for the rest of us to aspire to. It's bigger than demonstratiing that African-Americans could master complex,
high-tech machinery and fight and die for their county as well as white Americans could, for behind almost any significant event benefitting all Americans since World War II stands
one or more Tuskegee Airmen. Peel back the onion of the Civil Rights Movement, of advances of minorities in government or private industry and you'll find them there in leadership positions,
winking at you and saying, "Hell, I knew we could do it." During the war, after the war, at home and abroad, they broke barriers and smashed sterotypes, and led the fight for all American to help
build and fully share in the American Experience. Simply put, the pioneering, trail-blazing role of the Tuskegee Airmen cannot be overstated.
"The spirit of the Tuskegee Airmen will never die!"