TuskegeeAirmen of World War 2
TuskegeeAirmen is the name that was used to refer to a group of young pilotsof African American origin who participated in World War II. Theywere the first servicemen to work as military airmen in the UnitedStates armed forces, who flew with distinction during WWII. Althoughthe group was subjected to racial prejudice both at home and abroad,the group was credited with over 15,500 military sorties which earnedthen more than 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses for their work. Theirhighly publicized success helped make way for the integration of theU.S army in 1948 under the leadership of President Harry Truman.
TuskegeeAirmen was comprised of 996 pilots and over 15,000 ground personnelworking as an exclusive black unit during the Second World War.During this time, African Americans were still subject todiscrimination of the Jim Craw laws (Berry 97). Before the TuskegeeAirmen, there was no African American who had served in the U.Smilitary pilot. African American had earlier tried to serve as aerialobservers in 1917 but their request was declined (Hill 127). Therejection of African Americans in World War I to join the militarymotivated them to push for inclusion in the forces. The struggle wassteered by prominent civil rights activists including Judge WilliamH. Hastie and labor union leader Philip Randolph. On April 3rd1939, the passing of the Appropriation Bill Public Law 18 by thecongress, which comprised an amendment assigning funds for trainingof pilots of African American origin. The War Department placed thefunds on use in civilian flight schools that were ready to trainAfrican Americans (Hill 145).
Initially,the War Department policy and practice mandated the segregation ofblacks into distinct military units run by white officers, aswitnessed in 9thand 10thCalvary, 24thand 25thInfantry Regiments. Due to pressure, in 1941, the Army Air Corps andthe War department established the 99thPursuit Squadron, the first all-black flying unit.
OnMarch 19th1941, the 99thPursuit Squadron was launched at Chanute Field, Rantoul, Illinois(McKissack and Fredrick 79). A cadre comprised of 271 men was trainedin airplane ground support trades at Chanute starting July the sameyear. The skills that were taught were very technical and setting updiscriminatory classes was quite impossible. This group of men becamethe base of other squadrons established at Maxwell Fields andTuskegee at Alabama (Percy 103).
InJune 1941, the Tuskegee program was officially launched with 99thPursuit Squadron at the Tuskegee Institute. The squadron was made upof 47 officers and 429 enlisted personnel, and supported by an entirearmy. After basic training at Moton Field, the recruits were taken tothe neighboring Tuskegee Army Air Field for conversion training ontooperational approaches. As a result, Tuskegee Army Field was the solearmy base executing three phases of pilot training including basic,advanced and transition in a localized place. The initial plan was tohave 500 men in residence at a time. However, by mid 1942, as many assix times the initial figure were stationed at Tuskegee, despite thefact that just two squadrons were training (Tillman94).
TuskegeeArmy Air Field was initially under control of Major James Ellisonduring training at the institute. Under his command, great progresswas realized in construction of the required facilities for militaryprograms at Tuskegee. He was transferred in the start of 1942 andsucceeded by Colonel Fredrick von Kimble, who oversaw activities atthe fields. In contrast to the new Military regulations, Kimblecontinued segregation on the field. This was in deference totraditions in Alabama, a policy that the airmen resented.
TuskegeeArmy Fields was no different from the existing airfields that wereused for training of pilots of white ethnicity such as Maxwell Field.McKissack and McKissack Inc. is an African American contractor whowas awarded the contract. The company’s workmen, the U.S Army, andthe Alabama Works Progress Administration constructed Tuskegee ArmyField in a span of six months. The architectural plans for thehangars meant for housing aircrafts were designed by Booker Conley, arecruit of Tuskegee (Homan and Thomas 128). The airmen were under theauthority of Captain Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., a black line officerserving at the time.
The99thSquadron finally became ready for combat assignment by April 1943.The group left Tuskegee on April 2 headed for North America, wherethey joined the 33rdFighter Group and its chief, Colonel William Momyer.
Thefirst combat assignment for Tuskegee Airmen was to assault the smallstrategic Pantelleria Island in the Mediterranean Sea so as to clearthe sea shores for the Allied intrusion of Sicily in July 1943. Thiswas a mission that was to be accomplished under guidance of veteranpilots. The aerial assault begun on 30thMay 1943, but the Tuskegee Airmen flew its debut combat mission on2ndJune. The attack resulted to unexpected victory with the surrender ofthe battalion of about 11,121 Italians and 78 Germans (Percy 129).
OnMay 1st1944, all black 332ndFighter Group, and 100th,301stand 302nd fighter squadrons were sent overseas for a mission. Underthe authority of Colonel Davis, the teams were moved to offshoreItaly, with the 99thSquadron joining them on June 6, 1943 at Ramitelli Airfield, next toTermoli, on the Adriatic coast. From this location, the heavystrategic bombing attacks into Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland,Hungary, and Germany by the Fifteenth Air Force was escorted by the332ndFighter Group (Tillman 78). The 332ndearned an incredible combat record for escorting heavy bombers. Theseairmen were referred to by the allies as “Red Tails Angels” dueto their distinctive crimson unit labeling applied on the tail of itsaircrafts.
Thesuccess of Tuskegee did not come without challenges. Of all the 992pilots who undertook their training at Tuskegee from 1941 to 1946,about 355 were deployed abroad, with 84 losing their lives fromaccident or attacks. The participation in combat of the 99thPursuit Squadron and 332ndFighter Group were highly successful particularly the dive bombingand strafing assignments under the command of Colonel Davis Jr.(McKissack and Fredrick 73).
DuringWorld War II, the 99thPursuit Squadron earned three Distinguished Unit Citations (DUC).These DUCs were particularly for operations over Sicily in 1943,Monastery Hill in 1944 and for successfully combating German jetaircraft in 1945. This operation was the longest bomber escortassignment of the Fifteenth Air Force during the war. In addition,the 332ndbattalion flew missions in Anzio, Sicily, Rhineland, Normandy,Rome-Arno among other places. Pilots of the 99thonce set an incredible record by destroying five aircrafts of theenemy in less than four minutes (Tillman46).The Tuskegee Airmen were able to shoot down three jets belonging toGermans in one day. Individual member of the 332ndFighter Group earned 96 Distinguished Flying Crosses.
Thenew flight program at Tuskegee received public recognition whenEleanor Roosevelt, the First Lady visited it in March 1941, and tooka flight with Alfred Anderson, an African American chief civilianinstructor. Anderson started his flying career in 1929 and wasresponsible for training of several rookie pilots. After her half anhour flight with the ‘chief’, in a Waco biplane, the first ladycongratulated the troop. Her visit had a great significance, and waswidely referred as the onset of Civilian Pilot Training Program(CPTP) at Tuskegee, although the program had already kicked off fivemonths earlier. The first lady used her authority as a trustee of theJulius Rosenwald Fund to organize for a $175,000 loan to assist infinancing the construction of Moton Field (Homan and Thomas 102).
Thesuccess of the Tuskegee Airmen came with wide publicity and honor.During the Second World War missions, Tuskegee Airmen brought nothingbut victory to the United States and her allies. The group receivedseveral awards and decorations including three Distinguished UnitCitations, 96 Distinguished Flying Crosses, at least one Silver Star,744 Air medals, 14 Bronze Stars and eight Purple Hearts.
OnMarch 29th2007, the Tuskegee Airmen were given Congressional Gold Medal at anevent in the U.S Capitol rotunda. The airfield where the men trainedis currently the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site. The airmenwere invited to participate in the inauguration of the first AfricanAmerican president, Barack Obama on 28thDecember 2008. Over 180 airmen attended the ceremony on January 20,2009 (Berry 123). The Tuskegee Airmen Memorial was established atWalterboro Army Airfield in South Carolina, honoring the TuskegeeAirmen including instructors and personnel who trained at the base,during WWI. The Airmen have been honored in several other occasionsincluding in films such as Red tails, a film that was directed byGeorge Lucas in 2012.
Despitecriticism from some people, Tuskegee Airmen were among the bestpilots in the U.S Army for various reasons, including their pre warexperience and individual passion of those recruited. However, theTuskegee Airmen underwent racism and had to fight it in their postwar participation in the Air force. Their combat reputation didmatter to quite a number of those directly connected with the group,for instance bomber crews often requested for escort, but some unitscontinued to assault them (Berry 52). In 1949, the group entered theU.S Continental Gunnery Meet, an annual completion that was held inLas Vegas, Nevada. The challenge involved shooting aerial objects onthe ground and releasing bombs on targets. The 332ndFighter wing won in the category of conventional fighter class.
In1948, after the end of discrimination in the military by ExecutiveOrder 9981 of President Harry Truman, Tuskegee Airmen became highlyregarded throughout the freshly established United States Air Force.Most of the men took important roles in the Air Force, with sometaking training roles in civilian flight institutions, including theblack operated Columbia Air Center in Maryland (Berry 183). On 11thMay 1949, Air Force letter 3.5 was released, making it compulsorythat African American Airmen be examined for reassignment to formerlywhite groups depending on their qualifications.
Thecontribution of Tuskegee Airmen in post war aviation was critical. Acivilian flight instructor with Tuskegee, Edward A. Gibbs during itsestablishment later founded Negro Airmen International, anassociation that attracted several airmen.
Berry,Ben. Tuskegee Airmen: to the Moon, Mars and Beyond (SecretsRevealed). CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2011.
Hill,Ezra M. The Black Red Tail Angels: A Story of the Tuskegee Airmen.Columbus, Ohio: SMF Haven of Hope, 2006.
Homan,Lynn M. and Thomas Reilly. Black Knights: The Story of theTuskegee Airmen. Gretna, Louisiana: Pelican Publishing, 2001.
McKissack,Patricia C. and Fredrick L. Red Tail Angels: The Story of theTuskegee Airmen of World War II. New York: Walker Books for YoungReaders, 1996.
Percy,William A. "Jim Crow and Uncle Sam: The Tuskegee Flying Unitsand the U.S. Army Air Forces in Europe during World War II." TheJournal of Military History, 67, (2003).
Tillman,Barrett. "Tales of the Red Tails Inside the Tuskegee Legend:The men, the machines, the missions." Flight Journal,February 2012.