ENOUGH!!! Lower the Flag!
Cost of the War in Iraq
(JavaScript Error)

Click here for more info about the death count

    Brief overview of the Tuskegee Airmen

Benjamin O. Davis Jr.
Pictures and text on this page courtesy of U.S. Airforce Museum
A War on Two Fronts--The Tuskegee Airmen in World War II

TSgt Michael G. Gartland
97th AMW Historian

The period between the two world wars was a time when the United States military's leadership reflected the racist attitudes prevalent in the nation. The Ku Klux Klan saw a rise in its popular support, and against that backdrop of hatred, military men who valued their careers also adopted that set of values.
At the Army War College, classes produced many studies supposedly highlighting black soldiers' inferiority. The resulting reports ridiculously claimed, "Negro men believed themselves inferior to white men, they were by nature subservient, and they lacked initiative and resourcefulness." Those were some of the attitudes that drove the Army's personnel policy of maintaining segregated combat units. Those same studies usually ignored the service achievements of black units in the civil, Indian, and Spanish-American wars.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and several African-American newspapers put intense pressure on the War Department to change its policies, but the catalyst for change turned out to be political considerations during the 1940 presidential election. President Franklin D. Roosevelt had his sights set on an unprecedented third term. In an attempt to garner a larger share of the black vote, he promoted Benjamin O. Davis Sr. to brigadier general, the first African American to hold such a high grade in the War Department. He also promised to open flying training to black cadets.
Eventually, the Air Corps established several flying schools for blacks, but it vehemently refused to accept any of the graduates into its ranks. Its leaders cited concern over interracial problems as reason for keeping the Air Corps entirely white. If an emergency forced a black pilot to land at a white airfield, what would happen when he ordered white mechanics to service his aircraft? Also, where would he eat and sleep? In 1940, an African-American officer could not expect white troops to follow his orders, nor could he share facilities or socialize with whites. The Air Corps, buckling under political pressure, experimentally activated the all-black 99th Pursuit Squadron at Chanute Army Air Field, Ill., March 22, 1941. Ground crews trained at Chanute, while Tuskegee AAF, Ala., opened four months later to train pilots.
Captain Benjamin O. Davis Jr., a Military Academy graduate, led the first class of 13 cadets through its flight training. He and four others completed their training and graduated as fighter pilots March 7, 1942. Almost 1,000 more African-American airmen received their wings at Tuskegee AAF, and have been known ever since as the Tuskegee Airmen.
Davis and his men waited another year before receiving orders to North Africa. During that time, they flew training sorties while Davis fought hard to maintain the unit's morale. He realized the future of blacks in military aviation rested on his unit's performance, and there were many in the War Department looking for an excuse to cancel the experiment. Rather than allow his men to endanger their future by protesting the discrimination they faced, Davis insisted they remain silent and answer the critics with their sound ability to fly and fight.
On June 2, 1943, Lt. Col. Davis led the Tuskegee Airmen in their first combat mission, strafing targets on Pantelleria Island. A month later, Lt. Charles B. Hall scored the 99th's first victory. On his eighth mission, he shot down an FW-190 -- one of Germany's best fighters. At the time, the 99th flew obsolete Curtiss P-40s.
Controversy erupted anew in September 1943, when an AAF report cited the 99th as lacking air discipline, and further stated that the unit disintegrated when attacked by enemy fighters. This stemmed from a close air support mission where pilots from the 99th attacked Me-109s escorting Ju-88 medium bombers. Attacking the Ju-88s was the primary mission, as they threatened friendly ground forces. The Tuskegee Airmen attacked the fighters, however, out of a desire to prove themselves in combat. In addition to bogus claims, the report properly criticized the men for diverting from their main mission. Acting on the report, Gen. Henry H. "Hap" Arnold recommended withdrawing the 99th from active combat.
The controversy grew until Col. Davis, who was back in the United States forming the all-black 332nd Fighter Group, appeared before a War Department committee to explain the negative reports. He pointed out several constraints that his men were operating under. None of them had any combat experience, while seasoned veterans usually led new white units into their first combat engagements. Also, the 99th was considerably smaller than comparable white units and did not receive replacements for combat losses. This meant that the enemy force usually outnumbered the men of the 99th by a wide margin. The dream of African-American military aviation had nearly ended, but Col. Davis' direct, honest testimony saved the day.
The 332nd Fighter Group moved to Italy, and eventually the 99th joined its other three squadrons. The group moved often, transitioning through several aircraft including P-47s and P-51s. The P-51 Mustang was America's finest fighter of the war. With the P-51 came the mission of escorting long-range bombers well into Germany. The 332nd flew 200 bomber escort missions and earned the unique record of never having lost a friendly bomber to an enemy fighter.
Another unique accomplishment for the group occurred in June, 1944, when pilots of the 332nd sank a German destroyer in the Gulf of Venezia. That was the only time during the war when fighters using only machine guns sank a major naval target. Then, in April 1945, the group destroyed the last four enemy aircraft in the Mediterranean Theater of World War II.
While conducting combat operations in Europe, the men of the 332nd Fighter Group had destroyed many more aircraft than they lost. They accounted for 111 enemy aircraft shot down, with another 150 destroyed on the ground. Furthermore, they destroyed more than 600 boxcars and other rolling stock, and had sunk 40 boats and barges by the war's end.
The 332nd had participated in many of World War II's campaigns and earned a Distinguished Unit Citation. The heroism and bravery of its men had contributed to the defeat of Germany. But, history shows the enemy of racism on the home front would take many more years to overcome.

Concerned about the War in Iraq?
Tell us about it in our new Blog!

Return to Lobby for more Tuskegee Links

Join the mailing list
to be notified of Museum
updates and additions
Enter your email address here
and click on submit button
Site Search