The Tuskegee Airmen were the first African-American military aviators in the United States Armed Forces. During World War II, black Americans in many U.S. states were still subject to the Jim Crow laws and the American military was racially segregated, as was much of the federal government. The Tuskegee Airmen were subjected to discrimination, both within and outside the army. They formed the 332nd Fighter Group and the 477th Bombardment Group of the United States Army Air Forces. The name also applies to the navigators, bombardiers, mechanics, instructors, crew chiefs, nurses, cooks and other support personnel.
All black military pilots who trained in the United States trained at Moton Field, the Tuskegee Army Air Field, and were educated at Tuskegee University, located near Tuskegee, Alabama. The group included five Haitians from the Haitian Air Force, and one pilot from Trinidad. It also included a Hispanic or Latino airman born in the Dominican Republic.
Although the 477th Bombardment Group trained with North American B-25 Mitchell bombers, they never served in combat. The 99th Pursuit Squadron (later, 99th Fighter Squadron) was the first black flying squadron, and the first to deploy overseas (to North Africa in April 1943, and later to Sicily and Italy). The 332nd Fighter Group, which originally included the 100th, 301st, and 302nd Fighter Squadrons, was the first black flying group. It deployed to Italy in early 1944. In June 1944, the 332nd Fighter Group began flying heavy bomber escort missions, and in July 1944, with the addition of the 99th Fighter Squadron, it had four fighter squadrons.
The photographs below were taken by Toni Frissell.
The 99th Fighter Squadron was initially equipped with Curtiss P-40 Warhawk fighter-bomber aircraft. The 332nd Fighter Group and its 100th, 301st and 302nd Fighter Squadrons were equipped for initial combat missions with Bell P-39 Airacobras (March 1944), later with Republic P-47 Thunderbolts (June–July 1944), and finally with the aircraft with which they became most commonly associated, the North American P-51 Mustang (July 1944). When the pilots of the 332nd Fighter Group painted the tails of their P-47s red, the nickname “Red Tails” was coined. The red markings that distinguished the Tuskegee Airmen included red bands on the noses of P-51s as well as a red rudder; the P-51B and D Mustangs flew with similar color schemes, with red propeller spinners, yellow wing bands and all-red tail surfaces.
In all, 992 pilots were trained in Tuskegee from 1941–1946. 355 were deployed overseas, and 84 lost their lives. The toll included 68 pilots killed in action or accidents, 12 killed in training and non-combat missions and 32 captured as prisoners of war.
The Tuskegee Airmen were credited by higher commands with the following accomplishments:
- 1578 combat missions, 1267 for the Twelfth Air Force; 311 for the Fifteenth Air Force
- 179 bomber escort missions, with a good record of protection, losing bombers on only seven missions and a total of only 27, compared to an average of 46 among other 15th Air Force P-51 groups
- 112 enemy aircraft destroyed in the air, another 150 on the ground and 148 damaged
- 950 rail cars, trucks and other motor vehicles destroyed (over 600 rail cars)
- One destroyer put out of action. The ship concerned was a World War I-vintage destroyer (Giuseppe Missori) of the Italian Navy, that had been seized by the Germans and reclassified as a torpedo boat, TA22. It was attacked on 25 June 1944 and damaged so severely she was never repaired. She was decommissioned on 8 November 1944, and finally scuttled on 5 February 1945.
- 40 boats and barges destroyed
Contrary to negative predictions from some quarters, Tuskegee Airmen were some of the best pilots in the U.S. Army Air Forces due to a combination of pre-war experience and the personal drive of those accepted for training. Nevertheless, the Tuskegee Airmen continued to have to fight racism. Their combat record did much to quiet those directly involved with the group, but other units continued to harass these airmen.
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. On 11 May 1949, Air Force Letter 35.3 was published, which mandated that black Airmen be screened for reassignment to formerly all-white units according to qualifications.
Tuskegee Airmen were instrumental in postwar developments in aviation.