Tuskegee Airmen is the name given to members of the U.S. Army Air Force units in World War II that were comprised primarily of African American flyers and maintenance crews, though a few white officers and trainers were also involved. The group compiled an impressive record, primarily in the Mediterranean Theater of Operations, despite facing frequent resistance to their presence in the formerly all-white Army Air Corps. Although the best-known Tuskegee Airmen were the fighter pilots of the 332nd Pursuit Group (99th, 100th, 301st, and 302nd fighter squadrons), the 477th Bombard Group (the first black bomber group) was also part of the Tuskegee Airmen. Pilots, navigators, bombardiers, maintenance and support staff, and instructors all played a role.
The Tuskegee Experiment
Service in the U.S. Army Air Corps had been limited to white personnel from its inception as part of the U.S. Army Signal Corps in 1907 until near the end of the 1930s. (The U.S. Air Force did not exist as a separate branch within the U.S. military until after World War II; however, during that war large air groups were designated Eighth Air Force, Fifteenth Air Force, etc.) The officer corps of the Army included a high number of men from the South, the region of the old Confederate States of America during the Civil War. The notion that blacks were inherently inferior to whites was still a wide-spread belief in most of the United States but particularly in the South, where virtually all aspects of life were racially segregated, so it is not surprising that Southern military men readily accepted—in fact, they had helped to write—a 1925 Army War College study of black troops in World War I that concluded Negroes, the racial term then in use, were subservient, mentally inferior and "barely fit for combat."
In 1939, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) took aim at the military's segregationist policies. Negro newspapers and civic groups around the country began a public campaign to integrate the armed forces. The African-American Pittsburgh Courier especially agitated for acceptance of blacks in the Air Corps.
In 1941, the campaign turned to the courts. Yancey Williams, a student at Howard University, filed a suit backed by the NAACP to force the Air Corps to accept him into training. The Corps' answer was to create a segregated unit to train black pilots and ground crews at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.
That wasn't what the NAACP had sought; it wanted full integration. The 239 black aviators who comprised the National Airmen's Association also strongly objected, but to no avail. The plan was called the Tuskegee Experiment. Member of the Tuskegee Airmen believed it was called an experiment, "because we were supposed to fail." Contrary to what is commonly believed, however, the training at Tuskegee was the equal of that at white facilities.
The Tuskegee Airmen go to War
The 99th Pursuit Squadron was activated at Tuskegee on July 19, 1941, nearly six months prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. (In the 1930s, fighter planes were called "pursuit planes"; hence, the Pursuit Squadron. During World War II the term was replaced with "fighter squadron.") After completing their training, in the late spring of 1943 the men were sent to North Africa, which the Allies had invaded in November 1942. They were assigned second-hand P-40 aircraft that were tough and durable but slow and obsolete, unable to maneuver as easily as the German Messerschmitt Bf 109 or Focke-Wulf FW 190 fighters they would be facing. In the summer of 1944 the group would be given P-51 Mustangs.
The 99th Pursuit Squadron, under the command of Benjamin O. Davis, the first black man to hold the rank of general in the U.S. Army, was unwanted by the commander of the fighter group it was assigned to. An impassioned plea from Davis led Chief of Staff George C. Marshall to intervene on their behalf and prevent the unit from being shipped back to the States. They saw action in North Africa, Sicily and Italy.
In February 1944, the 100th, 301st, and 302nd Pursuit Squadrons (Fighter Squadrons), comprising the 332nd Pursuit Group began flying combat operations in Italy as part of the Twelfth Air Force. In April, they were transferred to the Fifteenth Air Force near Foggia, Italy, and in July the 99th Pursuit Squadron was transferred to their group; previously, it had flown as part of a predominantly white fighter group and had already won two Presidential Unit Citations.
Fighter groups gave their aircraft's tails a distinctive paint scheme, both for easy recognition and esprit de corps. The planes of the 332nd were painted red, which led to the group's nickname, the "Red Tails."
Their primary missions were to escort bombers striking targets in Southern Europe. Eventually, they would fly as far as Berlin. Davis insisted his men stay close to the bombers they were escorting, rather than peeling off to pursue enemy fighters. This was the same philosophy held by General Ira Eaker when he commanded the Eighth Air Force based in England. That policy changed in the Eighth when Eaker was replaced by Gen. Jimmy Doolittle, who made the destruction of enemy aircraft the primary goal, in preparation for the D-Day invasions, and turned the fighters loose to "follow the enemy home and shoot him in his bed." Eaker was transferred to command the Fifteenth Air Force in Italy, which included the Tuskegee Airmen. Because they stayed close to the bombers and did not pursue fleeing enemy fighters, the men of the 332nd did not rack up as many kills as other fighter groups.
The Tuskegee Airmen 'Never Lost a Bomber'
On March 24, 1945, an African American newspaper, the Chicago Defender, ran an article claiming that in over 200 missions, the Tuskegee Airmen had never lost to enemy aircraft any bomber they had escorted. It wasn't true, but the story became widespread and was believed until the 21st century when comparisons of flight logs, mission reports and bomber losses were made. It was discovered a total of 27 bombers they escorted had been shot down by enemy aircraft. However, the average number of bombers lost by other escort groups of the Fifteenth Air Force was 46, nearly double the loss rate of bombers protected by the Red Tails.
As noted earlier, obeying Davis' orders to stick close to the bombers reduced the group's kill totals among enemy aircraft. Surviving members of the Tuskegee Airmen joke today that, "We get more aces as time goes on," a reference to how old memories become embellished. No member of the group shot down a total of five planes, the number required to become an ace. Some came close, with four. Some published reports claim pilot Lee Archer actually had five kills but that the number was reduced to prevent a black pilot from making ace. However, neither he nor Davis ever claimed Archer had shot down more than four enemy aircraft. A number of people today continue to investigate old records, hoping to find some overlooked bit of information that will confirm a fifth kill for Archer.
The group's kill total for enemy aircraft was 103. They also have long been credited with sinking a German destroyer, using only their machine guns. Actually, the ship—a former Italian destroyer converted by the Germans to be a torpedo boat—was severely damaged but not sunk. It limped into harbor, where it stayed for the rest of the war, so sunk or not, it was put permanently out of action.
The 477th Bomber Group
Some members of the Tuskegee Airmen were assigned to the 477th Medium Bombardment Group, which trained at Selfridge Field near Detroit, Michigan, to fly B-25 Mitchell medium bombers. It was never sent overseas. While the members of the fighter groups experienced varying degrees of both racism and acceptance in the Mediterranean, the bomber group faced the full brunt of racism that existed in the United States at that time. Their officers were barred from the white officers' base club, a violation of Army regulations. Tensions over their treatment caused the group to be transferred first to Kentucky and then to Indiana, where resentment over discrimination finally boiled over. On the night of April 5, 1945, nineteen black officers attempted to enter the officers' club there, in violation of provost marshal's orders, in has been called the Freeman Field Mutiny. Soon, seventeen more joined them, and all 36 were arrested. Twenty-one black officers attempting to enter the club the following day were also arrested. All but three were released following an investigation; those three were court-martialed for pushing the provost marshal, but only one, Lieutenant Roger C. Terry was convicted and fined $150. (The decision against Terry was set aside in 1995.)
Tuskegee Airmen, Conclusion
To paraphrase Daniel L. Haulman, Ph.D., chief of the Organizational Histories Branch of the Air Force Historical Research Agency who did most of the research in the 21st century that dispelled many stories about the airmen, the Tuskegee Airmen were neither the inferior flyers their opponents described nor the supermen depicted by their supporters. His "Nine Myths of the Tuskegee Airmen" can be found on the Website Tuskegee Airmen, Inc., a group dedicated to honoring the accomplishments of the Tuskegee Airmen and perpetuating their legacy.
Although debunking several of the myths, both positive and negative, Haulman concluded that, "If they did not demonstrate that they were far superior to the members of the six non-black fighter escort groups of the Fifteenth Air Force with which they served, they certainly demonstrated that they were not inferior to them, either. Moreover, they began at a line farther back, overcoming many more obstacles on the way to combat … Their exemplary performance opened the door for the racial integration of the military services, beginning with the Air Force, and contributed ultimately to the end of racial segregation the United States."
A number of them went on to careers in the military. In 1950, George S. "Spanky" Roberts, deputy commander of the 332nd Pursuit Group, became the first black man to command a racially integrated unit in the new U.S. Air Force. He retired a full colonel.
More information and photos can be found online at the Tuskegee Airmen National Historical Museum.
Years of Service - 1940–1952
United States Army Air Corps
United States Army Air Forces
United States Air Force
332nd Fighter Group
100th Pursuit Squadron
301st Pursuit Squadron
302nd Pursuit Squadron
477th Medium Bombardment Group
616th, 617th, 618th, 619th Bombardment Squadron