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The Tuskegee Airmen: The First Black U.S. Military Pilots

Courageous Black pilots led the way for desegregation in the U.S. Armed Forces. 

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  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Amid immense racial discrimination and segregation, young African American men yearned to follow in the footsteps of the acclaimed pilots who came before them. Although there had been other Black pilots, they were either civilians or solely served in foreign air forces, like the first African American military pilot who served in the French Air Service during WWI, Eugene J. Bullard. Never before had there been Black military aviators allowed in the U.S. 

African American men’s exclusion was based on the racist assumption that Black men were inferior to their White counterparts and would therefore be less qualified to complete the intense training to become fighter pilots that would eventually lead to immense military responsibility. Additionally, the military was far from happy with the notion that Black pilots would become officers who would preside over White enlisted men. 

Although the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps wouldn’t allow any African Americans to join their ranks until after WWII, in 1940, after President Franklin D. Roosevelt won reelection for his third term, he began allowing the U.S. Army Air Corps (AAC), which would eventually become the U.S. Air Force, to begin training Black pilots. These pilots would become known as the Tuskegee Airmen and would pave the way for postwar aviation developments and the eventual desegregation of all military forces. 

The Formation of the Tuskegee Airmen

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  • The Tuskegee Army Airfield.

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

After much protest from civil rights groups like the NAACP, Roosevelt’s War Department announced that the Army would start training Black pilots in Tuskegee, Alabama. The Tuskegee Army Airfield was decided upon, not merely for its optimal flying climate but because the government still wanted to ensure that the flying units would remain segregated, which would be considered normal at the time in the Jim Crow South. Therefore, the plan was as follows: African American pilots would complete primary, basic and advanced flight training at Tuskegee, while White pilots would have the privilege of training at bases all over the country. The Tuskegee program ended up training around 14,000 ground personnel, including navigators, aircraft mechanics and control tower operators, but only around 1,000 were airmen. 

In 1941, soon after the “Tuskegee Experiment” began, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt visited the site and flew with African American chief civilian instructor C. Alfred “Chief” Anderson in a Piper J-3 Cub. Pleased with her half-hour flight, she arranged a loan of $175,000 to help build Moton Field, the location of the men’s first training site. 

It is here that the 99th Pursuit Squadron, renamed later as the 99th Fighter Squadron, would become the U.S. Army Air Corps’ first Black flying force. But before they could acquire that prestigious title, they had to undergo lots of training. It took nine to 10 weeks to graduate from primary training at Moton Field before they started basic flight training at the Tuskegee Army Airfield, which would then last another nine to 10 weeks. 

Lastly, they would finish off their advanced flight training, where fighter pilot students would learn to fly P-40 aircraft and advanced bomber students would learn to navigate B-25s for another, you guessed it, nine to 10 weeks. The Tuskegee Army Airfield saw a total of 44 classes of pilots graduate, upon which new pilots were then assigned to military units, which included the 99th Pursuit Squadron and the 332nd Fighter Group and its three fighter squadrons, the 100th, 301st and 302nd. 

First Assignments in WWII

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  • A P-51 Mustang.

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In April 1943, the 99th Pursuit Squadron was deployed to North Africa to support Allied forces and then was sent to Sicily. During this time, Colonel William W. Momyer, commander of the White 33rd Fighter Group, tried to get Black airmen discharged by claiming the 99th was underperforming compared to his squadron. But upon further investigation and ardent defense from another colonel, they found no justification to remove the unit from the front lines. To further demonstrate their skill, in 1944, the 99th Pursuit Squadron outperformed the White fighter squadrons by shooting down more enemy aircraft during a two-day period. 

Eventually, in 1944, the pilots of the 332nd Squadron were deployed to Italy to begin escorting bombers to and from their targets while protecting them from enemy planes. Now flying P-51 Mustangs, pilots were able to more swiftly and accurately defend against the enemy. The tails of these planes were painted red to help other planes clearly identify allies, which led to their famous nickname—the “Red Tails.”

Tuskegee Airmen’s Civil Disobedience 

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  • Tuskegee Airman Lt. Roger Terry.

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons; Peter Gargiulo / Unsplash

In the spring of 1945, an act of civil disobedience took place that would become known as the Freeman Field Mutiny. Tired of being treated disrespectfully by hostile commanders and given inadequate training facilities, 101 officers of the 477th Bombardment Group were arrested at Indiana’s Freeman Field base after standing against the racial discrimination they faced. Colonel Robert Selway had supposedly established two equal officers’ clubs. One was designated for White officers and the other for Black officers. But while one club had a fireplace, pool tables and table tennis, the other had zero extra amenities and was instead merely warmed by coal stoves. 

Referred to as “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” by the Black officers, they decided to integrate instead with the White officers’ club. Led by Lt. Coleman A. Young, a small group began a sit-in; after four days, Young and 57 other officers were arrested and subsequently released to their quarters, while three were charged with “jostling” a White commanding officer. Selway ordered all officers to sign Base Regulation 85-2, which required adherence to segregation, but 101 of the 422 Black officers refused to sign, while others chose to sign only after striking out words or after writing that the White officers’ actions were discriminatory.  

12 days after the 101 Black officers were arrested, they were released, but not without receiving a reprimand on their record. The three Black officers charged with “jostling” stood trial. Marsden Thomson and Shirley Clinton had to pay a fine, and Roger “Bill” Terry was court-martialed, given a fine and received a dishonorable discharge with a reduced rank. It wasn’t until 1995 that President Bill Clinton pardoned Terry, restored his rank to Second Lieutenant and refunded his $150 fine. Clinton also removed the reprimand letters from the other officers’ files. Even though this squadron didn’t get to see overseas fighting during WWII, they did get to witness their impact on the civil rights movement and their effect on the fight for equal access in the military. 

Reality of War 

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  • A few of the Tuskegee Airmen.

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Of the 312 missions of the Tuskegee Airmen, they would only lose around 27 bombers to enemy fighters during seven missions, in contrast to the average loss of 46 aircraft by other squadrons. By the end of the war in Europe, 72 Tuskegee Airmen pilots had shot down 112 enemy aircraft. Of the 1,000 Tuskegee Airmen pilots, 355 were deployed overseas and engaged in combat operations and more than 100 men were reported lost on missions; 66 aviators were killed and 32 became POWs in Germany. 

Interestingly, two men who were captured by the German enemy described how they found themselves in a more racially integrated environment in Nazi Germany than they had been in parts of the U.S. or during their time in the armed forces, since POWs were not segregated by race, but instead by rank.

By the time the 332nd Squadron had its last combat mission in 1945, two weeks before Germany would surrender, they had destroyed or damaged 36 German planes in the air and 237 on the ground, while also damaging around 1,000 German transport vehicles.   

Legacy and Impact

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  • President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama greet Tuskegee Airmen.

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Unfortunately, upon returning home from service, the Tuskegee Airmen still faced astounding racism and discriminatory policies. But finally, on July 26, 1948, President Harry Truman issued Executive Order 9981, officially desegregating the U.S. Armed Forces and mandating equal opportunity and treatment. The Tuskegee Airmen Squadron lasted from 1941-1949, when the last all-Black flying units were deemed inactive. 

Many Tuskegee Airmen chose to continue their military careers, such as Benjamin O. Davis Jr., who continued to serve in the Air Force after becoming its first Black brigadier general; George S. “Spanky” Roberts, who was the first Black commander of a racially integrated Air Force unit; and Daniel “Chappie” James Jr., who would act as America’s first Black four-star general. The first three Black generals in the U.S. Air Force were all trained at Tuskegee. Yet others worked directly within the civil rights movement or in politics, like the first Black mayor of Detroit, Coleman Young. 

Even though not many people may know the story of The Tuskegee Airmen, they continue to make a lasting impact on America’s fight against racial inequality. When the first Black president, Barack Obama, was inaugurated he made sure to invite the pilots and the support crew. Obama knew that his success and newly acquired executive power were made possible by the trailblazers who were determined to fly way before him.