In the 1940's, African Americans in many U.S. states were still subject to Jim Crow laws and even the American military itself was racially segregated. African Americans were denied leadership roles and training in the military because many people believed they lacked the qualifications for combat duty, such as intelligence, skill, courage, and patriotism.
African American pilots were barred from flying for the U.S. military until a series of legislative moves by the U.S. Congress in 1941 forced the Army Air Corps to form an all-black unit.
One of the Tuskegee Airmen
The War Department was reluctant to allow the unit to exist and in an effort to eliminate them before they could begin, they set up a system to accept only those with a level of flight experience or education that they thought would be difficult to fill. However, the Air Corps received an abundance of applications from men who were qualified even under those restrictions.
Because of its commitment to aeronautical training, the military selected the Tuskegee Institute at Tuskegee, Alabama, and began training the pilots at the Tuskegee Army Air Field.
The pilots who graduated from the program were given the name "Tuskegee Airmen." The name eventually referred to all who were involved in the "Tuskegee Experiment," which included navigators, bombardiers, maintenance and support staff, and instructors as well as the pilots.
General Benjamin O. Davis, Jr.
The first aviation cadet class was from July 1941 to March 1942. Thirteen men started the first class with five successfully completing the training, including Captain Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., a West Point graduate, who became the leader of the Tuskegee Airmen.
In June 1941, the Tuskegee program officially began with formation of the 99th Fighter Squadron at the Tuskegee Institute. Four hundred and fifty of the pilots who were trained at the Tuskegee Army Air Field served overseas in either the 99th Pursuit Squadron (later the 99th Fighter Squadron) or the 332nd Fighter Group.
In addition to fighting a military force overseas, they also were fighting a war against racism both at home and abroad. In Selfridge Field, Michigan, even though being highly trained military officers, members of the 477th Medium Bombardment Group were treated as "trainees" and denied access to the base officer's club. In Indiana, against direct orders to stay out, officers attempted to enter the Freeman Field Officer's Club. One hundred and three officers were arrested, charged with insubordination, and ordered to face court martial.
In spite of hatred, discrimination, and other challenges mounted against them because of their race, the Tuskegee Airmen became on of the most highly respected fighter groups of World War II.
The combat record of the Tuskegee Airmen.
P51C Mustang - One of the "Red Tails"
Over 15,000 combat sorties (including 6000+ for the 99th prior to July '44)
112 German airplanes destroyed in the air, another 150 on the ground
950 railcars, trucks, and other motor vehicles destroyed
1 destroyer sunk by P-47 machine gun fire (Lt. Pierson's flight)
Sixty-six pilots killed in action or accidents
Thirty-two pilots downed and captured, POWs
A nearly perfect record of not losing U.S. bombers, a unique achievement
150 Distinguished Flying Crosses earned
744 Air Medals
8 Purple Hearts
14 Bronze Stars
Several white units were in short supply of qualified people, and even though there were many experienced black personnel who could have helped, they were unable to because of the segregation policy.
President George H. W. Bush presents the Tuskegee Airmen with the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor
In 1948, President Harry Truman enacted Executive Order Number 9981 which directed equality of treatment and opportunity in all of the United States Armed Forces. In time, this order led to the end of racial segregation in the military and was the first step toward racial integration in the United States.
The positive experience, their superb behavior, and the outstanding record of accomplishment during World War II, and after, were important factors in the initiation of the historic social change to achieve racial equality in America.
The Congressional Gold Medal of Honor presented to the Tuskegee Airmen
On March 29, 2007, about 350 Tuskegee Airmen and their widows received the Congressional Gold Medal at a ceremony in the US Capitol rotunda.