Tuskegee Airmen

tuskegee airmen

The Tuskegee [tuhs-kee-geeAirmen is the popular name of a group of African-American pilots who fought in World War II. During World War II, African Americans in many U.S. states were still subject to discriminatory Jim Crow laws. The American military was racially segregated, as was the federal government. The Tuskegee Airmen were treated with prejudice both within and outside the army. Despite these adversities, they trained and flew with distinction. The Fighter Group saw action in Sicily and Italy, before being deployed as bomber escorts in Europe, where they were very successful.

The Tuskegee Airmen initially were equipped with Curtiss P-40 Warhawks fighter-bomber aircraft, briefly with Bell P-39 Airacobras, later with Republic P-47 Thunderbolts, and finally with the aircraft with which they became most commonly associated, the North American P-51 Mustang. When the pilots painted the tails of their P-47s and later, P-51s, red, the nickname ‘Red Tails’ was coined. Bomber crews applied a more effusive ‘Red-Tail Angels’ sobriquet. A B-25 bomb group, was forming in the U.S., but was not able to complete its training in time to see action.

Before the Tuskegee Airmen, no African American had been a U.S. military pilot. In 1917, African-American men had tried to become aerial observers, but were rejected. African American Eugene Bullard served in the French air service during World War I, because he was not allowed to serve in an American unit. The racially motivated rejections of World War I African-American recruits sparked over two decades of advocacy by African Americans who wished to enlist and train as military aviators. The effort was led by such prominent civil rights leaders as Walter White of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, labor union leader A. Philip Randolph, and Judge William H. Hastie. Finally, in 1939, Congress designated funds for training African-American pilots. War Department tradition and policy mandated the segregation of African Americans into separate military units staffed by white officers, as had been done previously with Cavalry and Infantry Regiments. In 1941, the War Department and the Army Air Corps, under pressure, constituted the first all-black flying unit, the 99th Pursuit Squadron.

Due to the restrictive nature of selection policies, the situation did not seem promising for African Americans since. However, the exclusionary policies failed dramatically when the Air Corps received an abundance of applications from men who qualified, even under the restrictive requirements. Many of the applicants already had participated in the Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP, initiated in 1938 by the U.S. government to further military preparedness), in which the historically black Tuskegee Institute (a private, historically black university located in Tuskegee, Alabama, founded by Booker T. Washington) had participated since 1939. The U.S. Army Air Corps had established the Psychological Research Unit 1 at Maxwell Army Air Field, Montgomery, Alabama, and other units around the country for aviation cadet training, which included the identification, selection, education, and training of pilots, navigators, and bombardiers. Psychologists employed in these research studies and training programs used some of the first standardized tests to quantify IQ, dexterity, and leadership qualities to select and train the best-suited personnel for the roles of bombardier, navigator, and pilot. The Air Corps determined that the existing programs would be used for all units, including all-black units.

The budding flight program at Tuskegee received a publicity boost when First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt inspected it in March 1941, and subsequently flew with African-American chief civilian instructor C. Alfred ‘Chief’ Anderson. Anderson, who had been flying since 1929, and was responsible for training thousands of rookie pilots, took his prestigious passenger on a half-hour flight in a Waco biplane. After landing, she cheerfully announced, ‘Well, you can fly all right.’ The subsequent brouhaha over the First Lady’s flight had such an impact it is often mistakenly cited as the start of the CPTP at Tuskegee, even though the program was already five months old. Eleanor Roosevelt used her position as a trustee of the Julius Rosenwald Fund to arrange a loan of $175,000 to purchase the land for Moton Field in Tuskegee, which would become their base of operations. Later that month, the 99th Pursuit Squadron was activated at Chanute Field in Rantoul, Illinois. A cadre of 271 enlisted men was trained in aircraft ground support trades; the skills being taught were so technical that setting up segregated classes was deemed impossible. This small number of enlisted men became the core of other black squadrons forming at Tuskegee and Maxwell Fields in Alabama.

The Tuskegee program began officially in June with the 99th Pursuit Squadron at the Tuskegee Institute. The unit consisted of 47 officers and 429 enlisted men, and was backed by an entire service arm. Initial planning called for 500 personnel in residence at a time. By mid-1942, over six times that many were stationed at Tuskegee, even though only two squadrons were training there. Tuskegee Army Airfield was a replica of already-existing airfields reserved for training white pilots, such as Maxwell Field, only 40 miles away. African-American contractors McKissack and McKissack, Inc., the Alabama Works Progress Administration, and the U.S. Army built the airfield in only six months. The airmen were placed under the command of Captain Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., one of only two black line officers then serving.

During training, Tuskegee Army Air Field was commanded first by Major James Ellison, who made great progress in organizing the construction of the facilities needed for the military program at Tuskegee. However, he was transferred from the unit, reputedly because of his insistence that his African-American sentries and Military Police had police authority over local Caucasian civilians. His successor, Colonel Frederick von Kimble, then oversaw operations at the Tuskegee airfield. Contrary to new Army regulations, Kimble maintained segregation on the field in deference to local customs in the state of Alabama, a policy that was resented by the airmen. Later that year, the Air Corps replaced Kimble. His replacement had been the director of instruction at Tuskegee Army Airfield, Major Noel F. Parrish. Counter to the prevalent racism of the day, Parrish was fair and open-minded and petitioned Washington to allow the Tuskegee Airmen to serve in combat.

In some cases, the strict racial segregation the U.S. Army required gave way in the face of the requirements for complex training in technical vocations. Typical of the process was the development of separate African-American flight surgeons to support the operations and training of the Tuskegee Airmen. Before the development of this unit, no U.S. Army flight surgeons had been black. Training of African-American men as aviation medical examiners was conducted through correspondence courses until 1943, when two black physicians were admitted to the U.S. Army School of Aviation Medicine at Randolph Field, Texas. This was one of the earliest racially integrated courses in the U.S. Army. Seventeen flight surgeons served with the Tuskegee Airmen from 1941 through 1949. At that time, the typical tour of duty for a U.S. Army flight surgeon was four years. Six of these physicians lived under field conditions during operations in North Africa, Sicily, and Italy.

The accumulation of washed-out cadets at Tuskegee and the propensity of other commands to ‘dump’ African-American personnel on the post exacerbated the difficulties of administering Tuskegee. A shortage of jobs for them made these enlisted men a drag on Tuskegee’s housing and culinary departments. Trained officers were also left idle, as the plan to shift African-American officers into command slots stalled, and white officers not only continued to hold command, but were joined by additional white officers assigned to the post. One rationale behind the non-assignment of trained African-American officers was stated by the commanding officer of the Army Air Forces, General Henry ‘Hap’ Arnold: ‘Negro pilots cannot be used in our present Air Corps units since this would result in Negro officers serving over white enlisted men creating an impossible social situation.’

The 99th was finally considered ready for combat duty in April 1943, and shipped out of Tuskegee, bound for North Africa. Given little guidance from battle-experienced pilots, the 99th’s first combat mission was to attack the small strategic volcanic island of Pantelleria in the Mediterranean Sea to clear the sea lanes for the Allied invasion of Sicily. The surrender of the garrison of 11,121 Italians and 78 Germans due to air attack was the first of its kind. However, the assignment to a predominantly ground attack role prevented the 99th from engaging in air-to-air combat. The unit was later criticized for not shooting down enemy aircraft; Congressional hearings were held on this perceived failure, with the aim of disbanding the squadron. However, the 99th moved on to Sicily and received a Distinguished Unit Citation for its performance in combat.

By early 1944, more graduates were ready for combat, and the all-black Fighter Group had been sent overseas with three fighter squadrons. Under the command of Colonel Davis, the squadrons were moved to mainland Italy, where the 99th Fighter Squadron joined them at Ramitelli Airfield on the Adriatic coast. From there, the Fighter Group escorted bombing raids into Czechoslovakia, Austria, Hungary, Poland, and eventually, Germany. The fighter squadron earned three Distinguished Unit Citations (DUC) during World War II. The DUCs were for operations over Sicily and for successfully fighting off German jet aircraft in 1945. Pilots of the squadron once set a record for destroying five enemy aircraft in under four minutes. They also once shot down three German jets in a single day. In March of 1945, 43 P-51 Mustangs led by Colonel Benjamin O. Davis escorted B-17 bombers over 1,600 miles into Germany and back. The bombers’ target, a massive Daimler-Benz tank factory in Berlin, was heavily defended by 25 Luftwaffe aircraft, included Fw 190 radial propeller fighters, Me 163 ‘Komet’ rocket-powered fighters and 25 of the much more formidable Me 262s, history’s first jet fighter. Pilots Charles Brantley.

With African-American fighter pilots being trained successfully, the Army Air Force now came under political pressure from the NAACP and other civil rights organizations to organize a bomber unit. There could be no defensible argument that the quota of 100 African-American pilots in training at one time, or 200 per year out of a total of 60,000 American aviation cadets in annual training, represented the service potential of 13 million African Americans. The home field for the bombardment group was Selfridge Field, located outside Detroit, however, other bases would be used for various types of training courses. Twin-engine pilot training began at Tuskegee while transition to multi-engine pilot training was at Mather Field, California. Some ground crews trained at Mather before rotating to Inglewood, California. Gunners learned to shoot at Eglin Field, Florida. Bombers-navigators learned their trades at Hondo Army Air Field and Midland Field, Texas, or at Roswell, New Mexico. Training of the new African-American crewmen also took place at Sioux Falls, South Dakota; Lincoln, Nebraska and Scott Field, Belleville, Illinois.

The new group’s first Commanding Officer was Colonel Robert Selway. Like his ranking officer, Major General Frank O’Driscoll Hunter from Georgia, he was a racial segregationist. Hunter was blunt about it, saying such things as, ‘…racial friction will occur if colored and white pilots are trained together.’ He backed Selway’s violations of Army Regulation 210-10, which forbade segregation of air base facilities. In fact, they segregated base facilities so thoroughly that they drew a line in the base theater and ordered separate seating by races. When the audience sat in random patterns, the movie was halted to make men return to segregated seating. African-American officers petitioned base Commanding Officer William Boyd for access to the only officer’s club on base. Lieutenant Milton Henry entered the club and personally demanded his club rights; he was court-martialled for this, and discharged. Subsequently, Colonel Boyd denied club rights to African Americans although General Hunter stepped in and promised a ‘separate but equal’ club would be built for black airmen.

The unit was transferred to Godman Field, Kentucky before the club was built. They found themselves on a much smaller base with no air-to-ground gunnery range, and deteriorating runways that were too short for B-25 landings. Colonel Selway took on the second role of Commanding Officer of Godman Field. In that capacity, he ceded Godman Field’s officer club to African-American airmen. Caucasian officers used the whites-only clubs at nearby Fort Knox, much to the displeasure of African-American officers. Another irritant was a professional one for African-American officers. They observed a steady flow of white officers through the command positions of the group and squadrons; these officers stayed just long enough to be ‘promotable’ before transferring out at their new rank. This seemed to take about four months. In an extreme example, a 22 year old officer was promoted to captain, transferred into squadron command, and left a month later as a major. He was replaced by another Caucasian officer. Meanwhile, no Tuskegee Airmen held command.

They were then transferred again to Freeman Field in Indiana. The white population of Freeman Field was 250 officers and 600 enlisted men. Superimposed on it were 400 African-American officers and 2,500 enlisted men of the bomb group and its associated units. Freeman Field had a firing range, usable runways, and other amenities useful for training. African-American airmen would work in proximity with white ones; both would live in a public housing project adjacent to the base. Colonel Selway turned the non-commissioned officers out of their club and made it a second officers club. He then classified all white personnel as cadre, and all African Americans as trainees. One officers club became the cadre’s club. The old Non-Commissioned Officers Club, promptly sarcastically dubbed ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin,’ became the trainee’s officers club. At least four of the trainees had flown combat in Europe as fighter pilots, and had about four years in service. Four others had completed training as pilots, bombardiers and navigators, and may have been the only triply qualified officers in the entire Air Corps. Several of the Tuskegee Airmen had logged over 900 flight hours by this time. Nevertheless, by Colonel Selway’s fiat, they were trainees. Off-base was no better; many businesses in Seymour would not serve African Americans. A local laundry would not wash their clothes, yet willingly laundered those of captured German soldiers.

In April 1945, a Base Unit transferred in from Godman Field; its African-American personnel held orders that specified they were base cadre, not trainees. Black officers peaceably tried to enter the whites-only Officer’s Club. Selway had been tipped off by a phone call, and had the assistant provost marshal and base billeting manager stationed at the door to refuse entry to black pilots. The latter, a major, ordered them to leave, and took their names as a means of arresting them when they refused. It was the beginning of the Freeman Field Mutiny, which resulted in 162 separate arrests of black officers, some of them twice (Thurgood Marshall, the future Supreme Court justice, got his start defending the trainees). Colonel Robert Selway was relieved of the Group’s command; he was replaced by Colonel Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. A complete sweep of Selway’s white staff followed, with all vacated jobs filled by African-American officers. The war ended before the Group could get into action.

There are apocryphal reports that no bomber escorted by Tuskegee Airmen was ever shot down which persist to this day. While, that statement is not true, the black pilots were extremely capable aviators. Contrary to negative predictions from some quarters, a combination of pre-war experience and the personal drive of those accepted for training, far from failing, had resulted in some of the best pilots in the U.S. Army Air Corps. Nevertheless, the Tuskegee Airmen continued to have to fight racism. Their combat record did much to quiet those directly involved with the group, notably bomber crews who often requested them for escort, but other units continued to harass these airmen. In 1949, the Tuskegee Fighter Group entered the annual U. S. Continental Gunnery Meet in Las Vegas. The competition included shooting aerial targets, shooting targets on the ground and dropping bombs on targets. Flying Republic P-47N Thunderbolts (built for the long range escort mission in the Pacific theater), they took first place in the conventional fighter class. Lt. Harvey remarked, ‘We had a perfect score. Three missions, two bombs per plane. We didn’t guess at anything, we were good.’ They received congratulations from the Governor of Ohio, and Air Force commanders across the nation.

After segregation in the military was ended in 1948 by President Harry S. Truman with Executive Order 9981, the veteran Tuskegee Airmen now found themselves in high demand throughout the newly formed United States Air Force. Some taught in civilian flight schools, such as the black-owned Columbia Air Center in Maryland. Tuskegee Airmen were instrumental in postwar developments in aviation. Edward A. Gibbs was a civilian flight instructor in the U.S. Aviation Cadet Program at Tuskegee during its inception. He later became the founder of Negro Airmen International, an association joined by many airmen. USAF General Daniel ‘Chappie’ James Jr. (then Lt.) was an instructor of the Pursuit Squadron, later a fighter pilot in Europe, and, in 1975, became the first African American to reach the rank of four-star general.

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