Tuskegee Airmen

The History of the Tuskegee Airmen

At the start of World War II, the U.S. Army had rules that enforced our country’s attitudes towards blacks. They were considered unfit for combat and were generally assigned to stereotyped jobs as cooks and waiters, or were rejected completely. The Army Air Corps certainly did not let black men fly or repair airplanes. In that time of great need, such prejudices were a luxury our country could no longer afford. Afraid of disrupting morale of the fighting units, but under moral pressure and persuasion from the NAACP, the black media, some members of Congress and the White House, the War Department started a “separate but equal” training program for black aviators. This “Noble Experiment” produced the TUSKEGEE AIRMEN.

A total of 996 black military aviators were trained at the Army airfield near Tuskegee, Alabama and the Tuskegee Institutes. The first group of four Aviation cadets, with their Technical Training School in Illinois, earned the highest group grade average during the war. The Tuskegee Airmen, given little chance of succeeding by the War Department, were not given necessary supplies. The War Department was reluctant to send the Tuskegee airmen into combat, but eventually their record in battle changed the minds and hearts of many and led to the racial integration of the services.

Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., the first black General in the Air Force, commanded the “Fighting 99th” as they flew P-40, P-39, P-47, and P-51 aircraft in combat over North Africa, Sicily, and Anzio. The 99th joined other Tuskegee squadrons to form the 332nd Fighter Group. The group was known as the “Red Tails” for their aircraft paint scheme. German Luftwaffe pilots called them the “Schwarze Vogelmenchen” (Black Bird men). Bombers and fighters were based at different airfields. Many bomber crews never met their defenders, but they learned to respect the black fighter pilots who were fighting and dying to protect them. 

The four fighter squadrons, totaling 450 pilots and 10 times as many administrative and ground support personnel, served with distinction in the European Theater of Operations. They earned 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses, many more Air Medals and Clusters, Legions of Merit, the Red Star of Yugoslavia and the Presidential Unit Citation. The ground crews kept the planes flying despite supply shortages, even performing repairs normally sent back to larger facilities. The Tuskegee experiment succeeded beyond the expectations of even those who proposed the program.

The 47th Medium Bombardment Group trained in B-25 bombers, but the war ended before they were sent overseas. They are remembered for refusing to leave a “white” officers club in April 1945 at Freeman Field, Indiana, (35 arrested) and refusing to sign a segregation consent form (101 arrested). These Tuskegee Airmen who risked their careers and jail terms to stand up to injustice were victorious because their courage forced the elimination of the segregation policy and reassignment of the white personnel who confronted them. This incident and the excellent record of the 332nd Fighter Group in combat led to a review of the War Department’s racial policies and a presidential order to desegregate the Armed Forces.

from: Tuskegee Airmen document