The Tuskegee Airmen

Despite limited opportunities early on, African-Americans have played a pivotal role in United States aviation and military history. From the American Revolution and the Civil War to the astronauts of today, African-Americans have not let circumstances hold them back.

One of the most highly touted of these success stories is the triumph of the Tuskegee Airmen. Prior to 1940, African-Americans were thought to lack the ability to master the training and leadership skills required to succeed in combat.

It was actually a woman who help lay the framework for the Tuskegee Airmen. Educator Mary McLeod Bethune established a fund for black college students. That fund was used to assist The National Youth Administration's Civilian Pilot Training program which set up at six schools (Tuskegee Institute, Howard University, Hampton Institute, North Carolina A&T, Delaware State, West Virginia State College, Lincoln University of Missouri, and Harlem Airport in Chicago) and provided the instructors and foundation for the Army Air Corps Program to train African- Americans to fly and maintain combat aircraft.

Congress had enacted three laws to help make these events possible.

  • On 27 June 1939, the Civilian Pilot Training Act was passed. The purpose of this act was to create a reserve of civilian pilots to be called in case of war. Blacks participated in Civilian Pilot Training programs at the schools listed above.

  • Public Law 18, enacted on 3 April 1939, called for civilian schools to be contracted to conduct primary flying training for the AAF, and required that at least one of the schools train black aviators.

  • The Selective Training and Service Act of 1940 prohibited discrimination because of color and race in induction, selection and training.

Tuskegee Institute was one of the Civilian Pilot Training programs. The school had the facilities and the instructors in place to lead the program. The first class of the Civilian Pilot Training Program students completed their instruction in May 1940.

The Army had the perfect person in its ranks to lead the new 99th Pursuit Squadron as it took over the civilian facilities. Captain Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. and four classmates ( Lemuel R.Curtis, Connecticut; Charles Debow Jr., Indiana; George S. Roberts, West Virginia; Mac Ross, Ohio) graduated from the Tuskegee Flying School in March 1942. By the end of the year the unit totaled 43 pilots. The Tuskegee Airmen included pilots, navigators, bombardiers, maintenance and support staff, instructors, and all the personnel who kept the planes in the air.

In early 1943 the 99th Fighter Squadron was sent to North Africa. The airmen continued to train themselves in the latest navigational procedures and grew more confident with each mission. Success came early to one of the Airmen as Lt. Charles B. Hall of Indiana won the Distinguished Flying Cross. He shot down a German plane on the 99th's first mission. The unit was later moved to support the allied effort in Italy.

In 1944 the 99th joined the all-black 332nd Fighter Group already composed of the 100th, 301st, and 302nd Fighter Squadrons. Flying, in succession, the P-40, P-39, P-47, and P-51 fighter aircraft, the Tuskegee Airmen compiled the following illustrious combat record: - 261 Aircraft Destroyed - 148 Aircraft Damaged - 15,533 Sorties - 1,578 Missions - 66 KIA - 95 Distinguished Flying Crosses Awarded - 450 Pilots Sent Overseas. Many U.S. bomber crews referred to the airmen as the "Redtail Angels." Some records indicate the Tuskegee Airmen never lost an airplane, they were responsible for escorting, to enemy fire.

The 332nd earned a Presidential Unit Citation for "outstanding courage, aggressiveness, and combat technique" while escorting heavy bombers over Germany.

The Tuskegee Airmen overcame segregation and prejudice to become one of the most highly respected fighter groups of World War II. They proved conclusively that African-Americans could fly and maintain sophisticated combat aircraft. The Tuskegee Airmen's achievements, together with the men and women who supported them, paved the way for full integration of the U.S. military.