Similar to the dedicatory article published on January 20, which discussed First Lieutenant James A. McMurria and the crew of the Waltzing Matilda, this week’s narrative tells the story about another group of men and women who paved the way for future generations. As previously demonstrated, examining the past provides pivotal insight into the forces which shaped, and continue to shape, American institutions. While social systematic racism plagued the African American community in the 1940s, the Tuskegee Airmen not only fought the ever-increasing threat of Nazism and fascism spreading throughout Europe, but also the socioeconomic inequalities prevalent in the United States at the time. With the commencement of Black History Month and the recent promotion of Tuskegee Airmen Colonel (Ret.) Charles McGee, who was promoted to the rank of Brigadier General February 4, it seems appropriate to tell the story of the Tuskegee Airmen who flew the skies first, so that others could follow.
At the beginning of World War II, many Americans dismissed the thought of black service members. Nonetheless, civil rights activists advocated for equality within the United States military. Across the ocean, Hitler’s successful blitzkrieg campaign amplified American concern about the armed conflict occurring in Europe. Bracing for another world war, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Selective Training and Service Act September 16, 1940, which not only created the nation’s first peacetime draft, but also refuted the cultural prejudice regarding black soldiers and sailors, as the act authorized the enlistment and commission of African Americans in the U. S. military. Six months later, the Army Air Corps activated the first African American flying unit, the 99th Pursuit Squadron.
To prepare for aerial combat, the men of the 99th Pursuit Squadron trained at the Tuskegee Army Air Airfield in Tuskegee, Alabama. Beginning July 23, 1941, black pilots and flight crew members received instruction at either Tuskegee Army Air Field under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Noel F. Parrish or the nearby Moton Field, under the guidance of Charles “Chief” Anderson, depending on their stage in flight training. In addition to the male flight crews, African American women supported the mission as mechanics, clerical workers, base guards, and flight tower controllers. By March 1972, the first pilots graduated from the Tuskegee pilot program. That May, Fifteenth Air Force re-designated the unit as the 99th Fighter Squadron. The following spring, the squadron was deemed fully operational and received deployment orders to North Africa. Led by Captain Benjamin Davis Jr., the Tuskegee Airmen conducted combat missions throughout North Africa and, later, Italy.
From December 1943 to February 1944, three additional black fighter units joined the 99th in Italy. With the activation of the 332nd Fighter Group on October 13, 1942, which included the 99th, 100th, 301st and 302nd fighter squadrons, the Tuskegee Airmen’s mission set expanded to include both close-air support and bomber escort missions. In addition to a group expansion, the Army Air Corps upgraded the flyers’ outdated P-40 and P-41 fighters with the faster P-51 Mustang by July 1944. To distinguish themselves during combat, each fighter group under Fifteenth Air Force painted a unique colored pattern on their aircraft tails. A solid red tail set apart the 332nd from the other three fighter units. The famous “Red Tails” ultimately flew 1,578 sorties during the war.
Despite their heroic actions and aerial achievements, the Tuskegee Airmen returned to a segregated nation. Nevertheless, the 332nd Fighter Group challenged the status quo and disproved the erroneous social beliefs surrounding African American’s in the military. Indeed, the Army Air Corps awarded the group three Distinguished Unit Citations and ninety-six Distinguished Flying Crosses. Noted Tuskegee Airmen such as Benjamin Davis Jr. and Daniel “Chappie” James Jr. continued their military careers after the war and, later, achieved the rank of General. Less than three years after World War II ended, President Harry Truman signed Executive Order 9981, which guaranteed equal military opportunity for all races. Through adversity on the home front and downrange, the men and women that served in the Tuskegee air program fought for the betterment of themselves and others, and in their endeavor to establish a diverse military force, demonstrated courage and resiliency in an unprecedented fashion.
(This article is the result of research conducted by the staffs at the Air Force Historical Research Agency, National Museum of the Air Force, and National Parks Service.)
Kyle Brislan is the Historian for the 90th Missile Wing at F. E. Warren Air Force Base. He is a prior history instructor, published author, and Air Force veteran. His historical expertise includes: military history, early-twentieth century Russian history, and labor history.