In spite of adversity and limited opportunities, African Americans have played a significant role in U.S. military history over the past 300 years. They were denied military leadership roles and skilled training because many believed they lacked qualifications for combat duty. Before 1940, African Americans were barred from flying for the US military. Civil rights organizations and the black press exerted pressure that resulted in the formation of an all African-American pursuit squadron based in Tuskegee, Alabama, in 1941. They became known as the Tuskegee Airmen.
“Tuskegee Airmen” refers to all who were involved in the so-called “Tuskegee Experiment,” the Army Air Corps program to train African Americans to fly and maintain combat aircraft. The Tuskegee Airmen included pilots, navigators, bombardiers, maintenance and support staff, instructors, and all the personnel who kept the planes in the air.
The military selected Tuskegee Institute to train pilots because of its commitment to aeronautical training. Tuskegee had the facilities, and engineering and technical instructors, as well as a climate for year round flying. The first Civilian Pilot Training Program students completed their instruction in May 1940. The Tuskegee program was then expanded and became the center for African-American aviation during World War II.
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 US military.
On November 6, 1998, President Clinton approved Public Law 105-355, which established the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site at Moton Field in Tuskegee, Alabama, to commemorate and interpret the heroic actions of the Tuskegee Airmen during World War II. The new site will contain a museum and interpretive programs at the historic complex at Moton Field as well as a national center based on a public-private partnership. For information on the Tuskegee Airmen oral history project, contact Interim Project Coordinator Bob Blythe, E-mail: [email protected], or the Superintendent, Tuskegee Institute National Historic Site, E-mail: [email protected]
Airmen in Combat
The 99th Fighter Squadron was sent to North Africa in April 1943 for combat duty. They were joined by the 100th, 301st, and 302nd African-American fighter squadrons. Together these squadrons formed the 332nd fighter group. The transition from training to actual combat wasn’t always smooth given the racial tensions of the time. However, the Airmen overcame the obstacles posed by segregation. Under the able command of Col. Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., the well-trained and highly motivated 332nd flew successful missions over Sicily, the Mediterranean, and North Africa.
Bomber crews named the Tuskegee Airmen “Red-Tail Angels” after the red tail markings on their aircraft. Also known as “Black” or “Lonely Eagles,” the German Luftwaffe called them “Black Bird Men.” The Tuskegee Airmen flew in the Mediterranean theater of operations. The Airmen completed 15,500 missions, destroyed over 260 enemy aircraft, sank one enemy destroyer, and demolished numerous enemy installations. Several aviators died in combat. The Tuskegee Airmen were awarded numerous high honors, including Distinguished Flying Crosses, Legions of Merit, Silver Stars, Purple Hearts, the Croix de Guerre, and the Red Star of Yugoslavia. They never lost a bomber to enemy fighters. A Distinguished Unit Citation was awarded to the 332nd Fighter Group for “outstanding performance and extraordinary heroism” in 1945.
The Tuskegee Airmen of the 477th Bombardment Group never saw action in WWII. However, they staged a peaceful, non-violent protest for equal rights at Freeman Field, Indiana, in April 1945.
Their achievements proved conclusively that the Tuskegee Airmen were highly disciplined and capable fighters. They earned the respect of fellow bomber crews and of military leaders. Having fought America’s enemies abroad, the Tuskegee Airmen returned to America to join the struggle to win equality at home.