U.S. Air Force Fact Sheet
During World War II, the U.S. military was racially segregated. Reflecting American society and law at the time, most black soldiers and sailors were restricted to labor battalions and other support positions. An experiment in the U.S. Army Air Forces, however, showed that given equal opportunity and training, African-Americans could fly in, command and support combat units as well as anyone. The USAAF’s black fliers, the so-called "Tuskegee Airmen," served with distinction in combat and directly contributed to the eventual integration of the U.S. armed services, with the U.S. Air Force leading the way.
In the late 1930s President Franklin D. Roosevelt anticipated that the United States could be drawn into a war with Europe. His administration, therefore, began a pilot training program in 1938 to create a reserve of trained civilian fliers in case of national emergency. After African-American leaders argued that blacks should share with whites the burden of defending the United States, the program was soon opened to African-Americans. In 1940 the Selective Training and Service Act banned racial discrimination in conscription, clearing the way for blacks to be trained for Air Corps service.
Tuskegee Institute, a black college founded in Alabama in 1881 by Booker T. Washington, participated in the Roosevelt administration’s pilot training program. Tuskegee graduated its first civilian licensed pilots in May 1940 and was the only source of black military pilots in WWII.
In March 1941 the Air Corps announced the formation of its first-ever black combat unit, the 99th Pursuit (later Fighter) Squadron. Reflecting contemporary American custom and War Department policy, Tuskegee’s black aviators remained segregated in an all-black organization. The unit was to include 47 officers and 429 enlisted men; ground crews were to train at Chanute Army Air Field, Ill., while pilots trained at Tuskegee.
Primary flight training took place in Tuskegee Institute’s Division of Aeronautics, with beginning flying lessons at the school’s Moton Field. Advanced training and transition to military aircraft were conducted at Tuskegee Army Air Field, which was officially established on July 23, 1941.
Col. (later Brig. Gen.) Noel F. Parrish, a white officer, commanded the installation and was well respected by his troops for his tact and concern for black airmen facing discrimination.
Davis Leads the 99th Into Combat
The U.S. Army Air Force’s experimental flying unit, being rigidly segregated, required a black leader. Capt. Benjamin O. Davis Jr. was chosen to lead the outfit because he was one of only two black line officers in the Army — the other was his father. Capt. Davis was a West Point graduate whose leadership skills and personal strength in overcoming racism helped make him an effective combat leader. He would eventually become the U.S. Air Force’s first black general.
Led by Davis, Tuskegee’s first group of five men graduated as USAAF fighter pilots on March 7, 1942. The 99th Pursuit Squadron added personnel and trained for a year before finally being sent to North Africa in the spring of 1943. They were attached to the 33rd Fighter Group at Fordjouna, Tunisia.
Flying P-40 Warhawks, the 99th first saw combat on June 2, 1943, as the Allies secured the Italian island of Pantellaria. The unit scored its first aerial victory against the Luftwaffe on July 2 when Lt. Charles B. Hall shot down a Focke Wulf Fw 190 on his eighth mission. The unit’s first losses occurred the same day as Lts. Sherman White and James McCullin were killed.
Trouble followed as time passed. Three months into its combat tour, the 99th was accused of lacking discipline and aggressiveness and was nearly dissolved. Davis saved them, explaining that, unlike white units, they had no experienced veterans to guide them.
While the 99th Fighter Squadron made its mark in combat, Benjamin Davis had been sent back to the United States to organized the 332nd Fighter Group, which absorbed the 99th into an all-black group of four squadrons. They left their P-40s and P-39s in favor of the robust P-47 Thunderbolt, and later the sleek P-51 Mustang. Davis, now a colonel, returned to lead the group. He was known as a strict disciplinarian and urged his men to prove themselves in combat as the best reply to racism.
The 332nd Fighter Group flew 179 bomber escort missions from June 1944 through the end of the war. The Tuskegee Airmen proved especially valuable in this role. While on escort missions, Davis’ airmen performed with great skill and courage, on one occasion shooting down 13 German fighters. But despite its success, the 332nd was often outnumbered. On one mission, Davis’ 39 aircraft attacked more than 100 German fighters, shooting down five and for the loss of one and earning Davis the Distinguished Flying Cross for bravery and leadership.
Tuskegee’s airmen faced the best the Luftwaffe had, including the first jet fighters. On March 24, 1945, as the 332nd became the first Italy-based fighter unit to escort all B-17s all the way to Berlin and back, they met 25 German Me 262 jets. In the ensuing combat, three jets fell and the 332nd lost only one P-51. Significantly, the 332nd had completed the full 1,600-mile mission by continuing in place of a relief group that missed its rendezvous with the bombers. For this mission, the unit earned the Distinguished Unit Citation.
When the war in Europe ended, the 332nd Fighter Group had shot down 111 enemy aircraft and destroyed another 150 on the ground. Also, they knocked out more than 600 railroad cars, and sank one destroyer and 40 boats and barges. Their losses included approximately 150 killed in combat or in accidents. During the war, Tuskegee had trained 992 pilots and sent 450 overseas. By any measure, the Tuskegee experiment was a resounding success.
Legacy of Equality
The Tuskegee Airmen of the 99th Fighter Squadron, the 332nd Fighter Group and the 477th Medium Bombardment Group proved themselves equal to white fliers and support troops. They disproved assumptions that African-Americans were unsuited to the rigors of serving in a highly technical combat arm such as the USAAF. But despite proving themselves, black airmen still were segregated. The Tuskegee experiment made it obvious to many leaders, President Harry S. Truman in particular, that segregation by race in the military — in addition to being morally wrong — was simply inefficient and should be ended.
Truman’s executive order 9981, of July 26, 1948, directed that the "highest standards of democracy" were essential in the armed services, and that "there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons .. without regard to race, color, religion or national origin."
The U.S. Air Force, having become a separate service in 1947 and benefiting from the experience of the Tuskegee Airmen, became the leader in integrating the military. The USAF was the first service to erase the color line, thanks largely to the pioneering efforts and courageous legacy of the African-American airmen who showed their worth in combat in WWII.
Courtesy, Department of the Air Force.