The Tuskegee Airmen was the popular name of a group of African American pilots who flew with distinction for the United States Army Air Corps during World War II.
Prior to the Tuskegee Airmen all combat pilots had been white. However a series of legislative moves by the United States Congress in 1941 forced the Air Corps to form an all-black combat unit, much to the War Department’s chagrin. In response they set up a system to accept only those with a level of flight experience or higher education that they expected to be hard to fill, a half-hearted effort to eliminate the unit before it could begin. This policy backfired, and soon the Air Corps was receiving applications from men who clearly met the grade.
The U.S. Army Air Corps had established the Psychological Research Unit 1 at Maxwell Army Air Field, Alabama, and other units around the country for Aviation Cadet Training, which included the identification, selection, education, and training of pilots, navigators, and bombardiers. Psychologists were employed in these studies and training programs using some of the first standardized tests to quantify IQ, dexterity, and leadership> qualities in order to select and train the right personnel for the right role (pilot, navigator, bombardier). The Air Corps determined that the same existing programs would be used as well for all-black units. At Tuskegee, this effort would continue with the selection and training of the Tuskegee Airmen.
On March 19, 1941, the 99th Pursuit Squadron (Pursuit being an early WWII synonym for “Fighter”) was activated at Chanute Field in Rantoul, Illinois Over 250 enlisted men were trained at Chanute in aircraft ground support trades. This small number of enlisted men was to become the core of other black squadrons forming at Tuskegee and Maxwell Fields in Alabama — the famed Tuskegee Airmen.
In June 1941 the Tuskegee program was officially started with the formation of the 99th Fighter Squadron, formed up at the Tuskegee Institute, a famous school founded by Booker T. Washington in Tuskegee, Alabama. The unit included an entire service arm, including ground crew, and not just pilots. After basic training at Moton Field, they were moved to the nearby Tuskegee Army Air Field about 10 miles to the west for conversion training onto operational types. They were put under the command of Captain Benjamin O. Davis Jr., a West Point graduate. Colonel Noel Parrish took over as commander. Parrish, though white, was open-minded and petitioned Washington to allow the Airmen to serve in combat.
The 99th was ready for combat duty during the USA’s first actions and was transported to Casablanca, Morocco on the USS Mariposa. From there, they travelled by train to Oujda near Fes. From here, they made their way to Tunis to operate against the Luftwaffe. The flyers and ground crew were largely isolated by the segregation policies of the military, and left with little guidance from battle-experienced pilots. The 99th’s first mission was to take the island of Pantelleria. For a time they were attached to the 33d Fighter Group, whose commander left them out of most missions. Things changed when they were moved to Sicily and attached to the 79th Fighter Group, whose commander involved them fully. The Airmen were initially equipped with P-39 Airacobras, later with P-47 Thunderbolts, and finally with the airplane that would become their signature, the P-51 Mustang. The squadron took bomber escort duty, helping make the Anzio Campaign a success. Here they quickly racked up an impressive combat record, often entering combat against greater numbers of superior planes, and coming out victorious. The Luftwaffe soon awarded them the nickname, “Schwarze Vogelmenschen,” or Black Birdmen, and started to avoid them when possible. The Allies called the Airmen “Redtails” or “Redtail Angels” because of the distinctive crimson paint jobs on their aircraft’ vertical stabilizers. Although bomber groups would request Redtail escort when possible, most bomber crewmen never knew at the time that the Redtails were black. The Redtails were the only fighter group who never lost a bomber to enemy fighters.
By this point more graduates were ready for combat, and the all-black 332d Fighter Group had been created from three new squadrons, the 100th, 301st and 302d. Under the command of Colonel Benjamin O. Davis, these were moved to mainland Italy, where they were eventually joined by the 99th. The Airmen eventually served on bombing raids into Austria, Hungary, Germany. The 477th Bombardment Group (Medium), was forming in the US, but completed training too late to see action.
By the end of the war the 332d had claimed over 400 Luftwaffe aircraft, a destroyer sunk only by machine gun fire, and numerous fuel dumps, trucks and trains. They flew more than 15,000 sorties and 1500 missions. The unit received recognition through official channels, and won two Presidential Unit Citations, 744 Air Medals, 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses, fourteen Bronze Stars and several Silver Stars.
In all, 992 pilots were trained in Tuskegee from 1940 to 1946. About 450 deployed overseas and 150 lost their lives in training or combat.
Color poster of a Tuskegee Airman
Far from failing as originally expected, a combination of pre-war experience and the personal drive of those accepted for training had resulted in some of the best pilots in the Air Corps. Nevertheless they continued to have to fight racism. Their combat record did much to quiet those directly involved with the group (notably bomber crews who often requested them for escort), but other units were less than interested and continued to harass them. In one event 100 of the men attempted to enter an officer’s mess in the US and were refused, eventually receiving official reprimands for doing something that was illegal to deny them.
All of these events appear to have simply stiffened their resolve to fight for their own rights in the US. After the war the Tuskegee Airmen once again found themselves isolated, but a series of events over the next few years would end this. Perhaps the most important changes occurred when the 332nd entered the 1949 gunnery competition and won, while at the same time commanders across the US were looking for experienced pilots and crew. The result was the official end of segregation, ordered in 1948 by Harry S. Truman with Executive Order 9981. The Tuskegee Airmen now found themselves in high demand throughout the newly formed United States Air Force.
The Tuskegee Airmen continued and expanded a tradition that began with Bessie Coleman. Their effect on American culture is undeniable. The Tuskegee Airmen are even represented in the G.I. Joe action figure series.
The airfield where the airmen trained is now the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site.
In 1995 HBO memorialized them in a movie named “The Tuskegee Airmen”.
In 2005 seven Tuskegee Airmen including Lt. Col. Herbert Carter flew to Balad, Iraq to speak to active duty airmen. “This group represents the linkage between the ‘greatest generation’ of airmen and the ‘latest generation’ of airmen,” said Lt. Gen. Walter Buchanan III, commander of the Air Forces command, in an e-mail to The Associated Press.
- United States Colored Troops
- Buffalo Soldiers
- US 2nd Cavalry Division
- Freeman Field Mutiny
- Red Tails