The Tuskegee Airmen served as the United States’ first black Flying Squadron. They distinguished themselves in American history not only for their brave feats during World War II against the Axis Powers, but also for smashing long-held racial prejudices in the U.S. Army and in the country.
In 1941, under pressure from the NAACP, the black press, and others, the U.S. Congress passed a series of measures that forced the Army Air Corps to form an all-black air force unit to be trained at the Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama. Due to the racist policies of the Army, there had never been a black airman. Many Army officials questioned the intelligence, motivation, and patriotism of American blacks, and the Air Corps resisted the mandate from Congress by setting very high standards for recruits.
Despite these efforts, the Corps received hundreds of applications from all over the country. And due to the high standards it set, the men who entered the program were largely college-educated, highly motivated, disciplined, and thus, destined to succeed (and ultimately discredit much of the racist propaganda that the Air Corps had presented in its opposition to training black airmen).
In June of that year, the 99th Fighter Squadron was formed. The men trained to be pilots, navigators, engineers, control tower operators, bombardiers, administrative clerks, and other positions necessary for a fully-functioning Air Corps flying squad.
The 99th was sent to fly missions out of Northern Africa. In 1943, in its first mission on the island of Sicily, the Squadron earned a Distinguished Unit Citation for its outstanding tactical air support and aerial combat.
Col. Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. (who later became the first black General in the U.S. Airforce) and Capt. Edward Gleed.
In 1944, the 99th was joined by three other all-black squadrons to form the 332nd Fighter Group.
Throughout the war, these airman distinguished themselves for their skill and bravery, serving as escorts for bombers, shooting down enemy planes, and even sinking a German destroyer. Originally nicknamed the “Redtails” because the tails of their aircraft were painted red, this name was modified to the “Redtail Angles” due to their aerial prowess.
It is often said that the Tuskegee Airmen fought two wars: one abroad and one at home. At home in the United States, the Airmen were faced with racism and doubts about their qualifications. At Tuskegee, the men were isolated from white air squadrons. At other training grounds, black recruits often faced enormous racism, including being barred from officers’ clubs, or being treated below their rank. On the war front in Northern Africa and Europe, black officers were sometimes left out of briefings and even faced false accusations of underperformance (which were disproved by military records).
In all, 992 pilots were trained in Tuskegee from 1940 to 1946; about 445 deployed overseas, and 150 Airmen lost their lives in training or combat. The Tuskegee Airmen were awarded several Silver Stars, 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses, 8 Purple Hearts, 14 Bronze Stars and 744 Air Medals.
In 1948, U.S. President Harry Truman ended segregation in the country’s military forces.
In 2007, the Tuskegee Airmen were honored with a U.S. Congressional Gold Medal.
Click here to see some amazing archival pictures of the Tuskegee Airmen.
Read these extraordinary accounts of the Airmen.
Click here to read about one Tuskegee Airman’s service during World War II.