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Tuskegee Airmen

The Tuskegee Airmen were a small group of dedicated, talented, and courageous African Americans who trained as U.S. Army Air Force pilots from 1941 to 1946 at the Tuskegee Army Airfield in Alabama. They belonged to completely segregated divisions, the 332nd Fighter Group (composed of the 100th, 301st, and 302nd Flight Squadrons), the 99th Fighter Squadron, and the 477th Bombardment Group (later the 477th Composite Group).

At the start of World War II the army air corps had no plans to establish black air squadrons. Requests from black leaders, including Walter White, secretary of the NAACP, and Robert Russa Moton, president of Tuskegee Institute, had been to no avail. Public Law 18, passed in April 1939, required the Civic Aeronautics Authority to designate some schools for the training of civilian “Negro Pilots” (Francis, p. 38). The North Suburban Flying School at Glenview, Illinois, was selected for this activity but did not train any black pilots. Tuskegee Institute was also selected to offer civilian pilot training to blacks through the Alabama Air Service at the municipal airport in Montgomery, and in January 1940 flight training was initiated there. This proved impractical, so Tuskegee Institute's Airport Number 1 was opened in March 1940. By May 1940 nineteen trainees had been granted private pilot certificates. By 22 July 1940 advanced civilian pilot training was offered at Tuskegee. Yet black pilots were not allowed to join the military.

Black Airmen in the Military.

By 1941 there were one hundred licensed black pilots in the United States. The most influential was Charles Alfred “Chief” Anderson, who ran the training program at Tuskegee in 1940. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt flew with Anderson in April 1941. Her experience gave validity to black inclusion in the armed forces.

There were numerous demands for including blacks in the army air corps. In January 1940 this issue was pursued by some senators and black leaders during a hearing on a supplemental military and naval appropriations bill. Publications like the Pittsburgh Courier, The Crisis, and Opportunity suggested that blacks be included in the army air corps on merit. Finally, on 16 September 1940 the U.S. Congress passed the Selective Service Act, ending discrimination in selection of armed forces recruits. By December 1940 the establishment of a black pursuit squadron was planned. On 25 March 1941 applications from blacks were accepted by the air corps. Tuskegee was selected to train black cadets in the primary phase of army flying under the command of Colonel Frederick V. H. Kimble. Later in 1941 the War Department stated that it would establish a “Negro Pursuit Squadron” (the Ninety-ninth) with “400 enlisted men, 33 pilots and 27 planes” (Francis, p. 52). Consequently on 7 March 1942, during the first graduation exercise at the Tuskegee Army Airfield, five African American men received the silver wings of army air force pilots: Benjamin O. Davis Jr., Charles Debow Jr., Lemuel R. Custis, George S. Roberts, and Mac Ross.

On 24 August 1942 the pilots trained at Tuskegee formed the Ninety-ninth Fighter Squadron with Davis as its commander. By March 1943 the pilots and ground crew had received intensive combat training, and the unit shipped to North Africa in April. The unit flew new P-40s. From April 1943 until July 1944 the 99th flew with 3 different all-white groups, the 33rd, the 324th, and the 79th Fighter Groups, first stationed in North Africa and then in Italy.

The Ninety-ninth was perhaps the best-trained combat unit in the entire air corps, but it was mostly assigned escort and strafing duties. In June the 99th joined the 324th Fighter Group to escort bombers flying to the western sector of Sicily and flew 175 sorties during that time. Their first combat mission came on 2 June 1943, and they conducted themselves admirably. On 2 July Lieutenant Charles B. Hall scored the first aerial victory and received personal praise from General Dwight D. Eisenhower. The battle grew more intense, but the Ninety-ninth was still involved in shipping in the Sicily area.

Colonel William Momyer, the commander of the Thirty-third, resented the presence of the black Ninety-ninth Squadron. During 1943 there were prejudiced rumors spread by the press and white officers that the Ninety-ninth would be disbanded due to its lack of organization and victories. Then on 20 September 1943 ten of the Ninety-ninth's aircraft were sent to Paestum, Italy, and immediately saw action.

On 9 October 1943 the Ninety-ninth joined the Seventy-ninth Flight Squadron and continued to escort medium and heavy bombers and C-47s and carry out strafing and fighter sweep missions. On 27 January 1944 they shot down eight enemy planes in one day and were commended by General Henry H. Arnold. The squadron's involvement in the assault on Cassino, Italy, and support of Allied ground troops in spring 1944 were also commended by General Mark Wayne Clark.

The 332nd, the first all-black group, a combination of the 100th, 301st, and 302nd Flight Squadrons (all trained at Tuskegee), was activated on 27 March 1943. The group was posted in Italy in April 1943 and had early encounters with the enemy while patrol bombing and supporting ground troops over Rome and bombing German shipping supply routes. In June 1944, as part of the Fifteenth Strategic Air Force, the 332nd escorted strategic bombers in its P-47 Thunderbolt planes. On 26 June two of the 332nd's pilots sank a destroyer, and each received a Distinguished Flying Cross.

The 99th finally joined the 332nd on 3 July 1944, forming the first all-black strategic outfit. The 332nd Group acquitted itself with honor, shooting down several enemy planes from July to December 1944. The group's workload was heavy, and it suffered several casualties. The number of black pilots and technicians had been deliberately kept low, thus most pilots flew twice as many sorties as the average pilot. Yet the 332nd was also a highly decorated group. Four of its members, Colonel Davis, Captain Joseph D. Elsberry, Lieutenant Clarence D. Lester, and Lieutenant Jack D. Holsclaw, were decorated on 10 September 1944 for bravery in combat. Colonel Davis received the Legion of Merit, and Captain Edward Thomas of the 332nd received a Distinguished Flying Cross. On 24 March 1945 Davis led the 332nd on one of the longest missions (sixteen hundred miles) attempted by the 15th Air Force, which earned the group a Distinguished Unit Citation on 16 October 1945. Davis was awarded the Silver Star for Gallantry in Combat on 8 June 1945. Overall 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses, 1 Legion of Merit, 1 Silver Star, 2 Soldier Medals, 8 Purple Hearts, 14 Bronze Stars, and 744 Air Medals and Clusters were awarded to black pilots.

The war ended before the 447th, the first black bombardment group (trained at Tuskegee and later called the 447th Composite Group) could be deployed in 1945. Judge William Henry Hastie and Truman Gibson had negotiated the group's activation with the War Department. Consequently the secretary of the air force decided to include a black medium bombardment group with associated support units. The 447th faced open discrimination at Selfridge Field, Michigan, and was constantly moved when its men challenged segregationist policies. They entered a legal battle with the air force when they were arrested for trying to use the white officer's club at Freeman Field in Michigan. The McCloy Committee studied the events at Freeman Field and suggested an end to segregationist practices. Davis was appointed the commanding officer of the 447th and later the commanding officer of Godman Field in Kentucky on 1 July 1945. Thereafter efforts were made to end segregation at Tuskegee, but the field was deactivated in June 1946.

All of this led to President Harry S. Truman's creation in December 1946 of the Committee on Civil Rights, which recommended desegregation in the armed services. The failure of Congress to enact Truman's civil rights program prompted him to issue two executive orders. On 26 July 1948 Executive Order 9981 ended the segregation of the armed forces. The armed forces finally acknowledged the inefficiency of its segregationist policies and made some structural changes to remove inequity, even though complete integration was yet to be achieved. The Fahy Committee's constant monitoring of the armed forces during the Korean War led to a slow integration of the air force and the navy and lastly the army by 1954.

Racism.

There were several instances of blatant racism, including the War Department's requirement of a higher level of education for black flying cadets and technicians and the practice of “washing out” black flying cadets to keep their numbers low. Some talented candidates (about 60 percent) were dropped without consulting the black flying instructors, and old and poorly maintained aircraft and equipment resulted in the needless deaths of several young pilots. Blacks were trained only as fighter pilots, the toughest form of combat flying. Also the complete segregation of the training program kept the pilots from receiving input from experienced combat pilots, and the Ninety-ninth entered the war without any prior combat experience. The haphazard assignment of pilots and technicians showed the War Department's inclination to waste time and money rather than include blacks in the air corps. But these determined young men formed the best fighter groups in the United States at that time. Reputedly the 332nd did not lose a single bomber in its career as bomber escorts during World War II.

Black pilots also faced the ire of the people in neighboring cities. A pilot of the 332nd recalled that a few were almost lynched by the inhabitants of a little town for trying to buy a cool beer on a hot summer afternoon. The men's foresight saved their lives and got them safely onboard their train, but instead of receiving commiseration they were treated like criminals by the authorities.

The experience of the black squadrons upon their return to the United States was not very different from that of the black veterans of World War I. They were unwelcome in the exclusive all-white officers’ clubs and had no assignments after their return to Tuskegee.

Legacy.

From 6 March 1942 to 23 March 1946, 60 classes of pilots graduated from the Advanced Flying School at Tuskegee with a total of 926 pilots, 58 artillery men, 136 navigators, and 261 bombardier-navigators. The Tuskegee Airmen formed forty-three units from 1939 to 1949. By June 1945 black airmen had destroyed or damaged over four hundred enemy aircraft and numerous enemy installations and other vehicles. They flew 1,578 missions and 15,533 sorties between the mere 450 pilots sent overseas from among the 992 pilots who graduated from Tuskegee. About 149 pilots died in active combat and in accidents during training.

The Tuskegee Airmen and their supporters formed the Tuskegee Airmen, Inc., with fifty-one chapters all over the United States. The airmen are involved in training young African Americans in aviation and engineering, and they sponsor scholarships and organize annual national conventions. Supporters and admirers of the airmen built the Tuskegee Airmen National Museum in Detroit, Michigan.

The Tuskegee Airfield was designated a national historic monument in 1998, and President Bill Clinton granted $29 million to the project, which was still under construction in the early twenty-first century. On 29 March 2007 about four hundred black World War II pilots were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in recognition of their heroism and dedication.

[See also Military, Racism in the; and World War II.]

Bibliography

  • Francis, Charles E. The Tuskegee Airmen: The Men Who Changed a Nation. 4th ed., edited by Adolph Caso. Boston: Branden, 2002. This is an excellent account of the progress of the Tuskegee Airmen's training and the impacts of various policies and people on the fate of blacks in the air forces. Find it in your Library
  • Motley, Mary Penick, ed. and comp. “The ‘Spookwaffe’: Airmen of the 332nd Fighter Group.” In The Invisible Soldier: The Experience of the Black Soldier, World War II, pp. 194–257. Detroit, Mich.: Wayne State University Press, 1975. This chapter includes a brief overview of the airmen's experience and several illuminating interviews with officers of the 332nd and the 477th.Find it in your Library
  • Osur, Alan M. Blacks in the Army Air Forces during World War II: The Problem of Race Relations. Washington, D.C.: Office of Air Force History, 1977. This is a published dissertation that takes an analytical look at the formation of the black squadrons, the destiny of the airmen, and their impact on blacks in general and the policies of the armed forces in particular.Find it in your Library
  • Tuskegee Airmen, Inc. http://tuskegeeairmen.org. This Web site has detailed information about the activities of the airmen and links to news items and other achievements of the fliers.