The Tuskegee Airmen

Furnished by the U.S. Centennial Of Flight Commission

Capt. Benjamin Davis
Capt. Benjamin Oliver Davis, Jr., of Washington, D.C., climbing into an Advanced Trainer, January 1942.

First class of Tuskegee airmen
Original Tuskegee Airmen

Greeting airmen
Army Air Corps cadets reporting to Captain Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., commandant of cadets, September 1941.

Airmen studying circuitry
Basic and advanced flying school for Negro Air Corps cadets, Tuskegee, Alabama. In the center is Capt. Roy F. Morse, Air Corps. He is teaching the cadets how to send and receive code, January 1942.

Solo pilot landing test
Grading a primary student at Tuskegee on his solo landing.

Airmen marching
Marching across the campus at Tuskegee Institute.

In the 1930s, the U.S. military was a racially segregated institution, reflecting the legal and defacto segregation in much of the United States. In the army, African-American soldiers served in all-black units. In no cases were white men commanded by African-American officers. This was despite the fact that African-Americans had bravely served in the armed forces even before the American Revolution. They had fought beside the colonists in the War of Independence; African-American units had distinguished themselves in the War Between the States; and individual African-Americans had become aces during World War I and the Spanish Civil War. One ace, Eugene Bullard, fought with the French Foreign Legion during World War I because the U.S. Air Corps would not let him fly.

The U.S. Army Air Corps
dealt with the fact of American segregation by refusing to accept
African-Americans into its ranks at all rather than create separate units or
facilities. The Corps also did not have to face the issue of African-American
officers perhaps commanding white enlisted men, which might have occurred since
Army Air Corps pilots were all officers. So in 1939, when the United States was
gearing up to fight another world war, there were only 125 licensed
African-American pilots in the country because they did not have the
opportunity to learn to fly in the military and private flying lessons were too
expensive for most to afford.

The Air Corps’ refusal
to allow African-Americans to join its ranks ended on October 9, 1940, when the
War Department, at the urging of President Franklin Roosevelt, who wished to
guarantee the support of African-Americans in the next presidential election,
issued a statement declaring that “Negroes are being given aviation training as
pilots, mechanics, and technical specialists.” (In 1940, African-Americans in
the northern part of the United States could vote. Few African-Americans in
southern states voted before passage of civil rights legislation in the 1960s.)
This really did not mean that African-Americans would be trained equally with
white airmen. Rather, the Air Corps created an Aviation Squadrons (Separate) unit
and, in most cases, assigned its men the most menial and degrading tasks.

In1941 though, at the urging of the African-American
press and with the support of the Roosevelt administration, a segregated
fighter unit with openings for 429 enlisted men and 47 pilots was announced.
The pilots would come from the segregated Civilian Pilot Training Program and be trained
at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. On July 19, 1941, 13 students,
among them West Point graduate Captain Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., who
was also son of the first African-American brigadier general, were inducted
into the program. During the next four years, Tuskegee trained almost
a thousand military pilots.

After graduation in
March 1942, the pilots, nicknamed the Tuskegee Airman, became the 99th
Fighter Squadron with newly promoted Colonel Davis in command. The unit was
forced to wait a year for deployment because no white commander wanted to
accept the unit into his operations. Finally the Airmen were attached to the 33rd
Fighter Group, Tactical Air Force and sent to North Africa. On the troop
transport ship to Africa, Colonel Davis was placed in charge of all the troops
on the ship. Since the ship also had white troops, this was the first time an
African-American officer had commanded white soldiers.

Upon their arrival in
Morocco, the unit received training on new Curtiss P-40L Warhawk pursuit aircraft from former Flying Tiger Lt. Col. Philip Cochran, who spent 24
hours a day with his students, moving in with them and teaching them combat
tactics. The new pilots were grateful for his knowledge of aerial combat and
when they joined Colonel William Momyer’s 33rd Fighter Group in May,
they felt ready to fight.

On June 2, 1943, the
Airmen had their first sortie when lieutenants Charles B. Hall and William
Campbell went on a ground-strafing mission on the Italian island of
Pantelleria. Sightings of enemy aircraft were rare, and the 99th did
not have its first victory until Lt. Hall downed a German Focke-Wulf FW 109 on
July 2. Allied officers General Dwight Eisenhower, Lt. Gen. Carl Spaatz, and
Maj. Gen Jimmy Doolittle visited to offer their congratulations. Homefront
newspapers, even in the Deep South, trumpeted the success of the Tuskegee

The Airmen continued to cover
the Allied invasion of Italy. But they did not have another confirmed
kill until the following January, a statistic that upset Colonel
Momyer, who reported in September that the 99th lacked discipline,
teamwork, and “the aggressiveness and daring for combat that are
necessary to be a first class fighting organization.” U.S. Army Air
Force (USAAF) Chief General Henry “Hap” Arnold investigated the
criticisms and found that the 99th had been assigned far from the
invasion front, well away from enemy aircraft. It was also a new and
inexperienced unit, led by equally inexperienced commanders, unlike novice
white flyers who could rely on the experience of veteran leaders. Debate over
Momyer’s criticism ended in March 1944 when the USAAF Statistical Control
Division reported that from August 1943 to January 1944, the Airmen performed
as well as the other P-40 squadrons in the area. Arnold allowed the matter to

In October 1943, the 99th
was assigned to Colonel Earl Bates’ 79th Fighter Group that was
supporting the invasion of Italy. Bates considered his new unit part of his
team, a fact supported by an observer from the National Association for the
Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), who reported “total obliteration of
consciousness of differences of skin color among both white and Negro fliers of
the 79th Group.” Squadrons were mixed for combat and training
missions. The 99th gained experience and confidence. And on January
27, 1944, the unit had its second kill in support of the Army’s amphibious
landings at Anzio, the first landing in Italy. It boasted eight kills that day
and soon the victories began to mount.

As the unit approached
its first year in action, it learned that was being transferred to the 332nd
Fighter Group. The 332nd was composed of four African-American
squadrons that had been formed after the pioneer Tuskegee group, all under the
command of Colonel Davis. At first, the members of the 99th felt
that their new assignment would be less challenging both because of their race
and the new pilots’ inexperience, but before long, their new squadron began to
see more combat. Assigned to bomber escort with the 15th Air Force,
it escorted the bombers on missions around Italy, flew on the raids to the Axis
oil refineries in Ploesti, Romania, and strafed German troops retreating from
Greece. It established a reputation for protecting its bombers. The pilots
always followed Col. Davis’ orders: “Your job is to protect the bombers and not
chase enemy aircraft for personal glory.” The Germans called the 332nd Schwartze Vogrl Menshen (black birdmen)
and began to fear seeing a plane with its distinctive red tail—the mark of the

On March 24, 1945, the
332nd went on the longest mission flown by the 15th Air Force, to
the Daimler-Benz tank works in Berlin. On this mission, it downed three Messerschmitt Me-262 jet
fighters. The group received a Distinguished Unit Citation for its performance
that day.

Meanwhile, back in the
States, an African-American bomber group, the 447th, was being
formed at Tuskegee. It was made up of new pilots and experienced veterans
rotated home from Italy. The men completed training in January of 1944 but
never saw combat because, despite the reputation of the 332nd, white
commanders still refused to accept an African-American unit.

The 332nd
continued to fly until the end of the war. It flew more than 1,500 sorties, and
counted 111 kills (plus one destroyer sunk using a plane’s machine gun). Its
members received 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses. But their most important
achievement was never losing a single bomber to enemy aircraft–the only escort
unit with that record.

At the end of the war,
the Tuskegee Airmen returned to an America that was as segregated as the one
they had left. Some of the veterans became leaders in the fight for
desegregation, both military and civilian. Within their own community, they
offered pride and encouragement, and to the white community, they offered an
example of the equality of men. The Air Force became desegregated in April of
1948. Unfortunately, the rest of the nation would take much longer.

–Pamela Feltus


Gropman, Alan L. The Air
Force Integrates, 1945-1964. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press,

Homar, Lynn and Reilly, Thomas. Black Knights: The Story of the Tuskegee Airmen. Gretna, La.:
Pelican Publishing Company, 2001.

Geoffrey. Winged Victory: The Army Air
Forces in World War II. New York: Random House Reprint, 1997.

Sandler, Stanley. Segregated
Skies: All Black Combat Squadrons of World War II. Washington, D.C.:
Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992.

African Americans in Aviation History:

The Tuskegee Airmen at Afro-Americ@:

Tuskegee Airmen, Inc.:

U.S. Air Force Museum Tuskegee Airmen:

Additional reading:

Davis, Benjamin O. Benjamin
O. Davis, Jr. American: An Autobiography. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian
Institution Press, 2000.

Dryden, Charles W. A-Train:
Memoirs of a Tuskegee Airman. Tuscaloosa.: University of Alabama Press,

Francis, Charles E. The
Tuskegee Airmen: The Men Who Changed a Nation. 3rd edition.
Boston: Branden Publishing Company, 1993.

Robert J. The Divided Skies: Establishing
Segregated Flight Training at Tuskegee, Alabama, 1934-1942. Tuscaloosa:
University of Alabama Press, 1992.

Johnson, Hayden
C. The Fighting 99th Air
Squadron, 1941-1945. New York: Vantage Press, 1987.

Lee, Ulysses. The Employment of Negro Troops.
Washington, D.C.: U.S. Army Center of Military History, 1966; reprint, 1986,

Robert. The Tuskegee Airmen
[Videorecording]. New York: HBO Home Video, 1995.

Patricia C., and McKissac, Fredrick L. Red-Tail
Angels: The Story of the Tuskegee Airmen of World War II. New York: Walker & Co, 2001.

Scott, Lawrence
P., and Womack, Sr., William M. Double V:
The Civil Rights Struggle of the Tuskegee Airmen. East Lansing: Michigan
State University Press, 1994.

Weil, Martin. “Benjamin O. Davis Jr., 89, Dies; First Black General in Air Force.” Washington Post, July 6, 2002, B7.

Gropman, Alan J. “Benjamin Davis, American – USA.” Reprinted from
Air Force Magazine.

“Meet Lt. Colonel Alexander Jefferson.”

Tuskegee Airmen National Museum:

Educational Organization

Standard Designation  (where applicable)

Content of Standard

National Council for Geographic Education

Standard 1

How to use maps and other geographic representations to acquire and process information.

National Center for History in the Schools

US History

Era 8

Standard 3

The causes and course of World War II

National Center for History in the Schools

US History

Era 9

Standard 4

The struggle for racial and gender equality in the extension of civil liberties.