They may today be the most famous fighter squadron of the Second World War, but when the Tuskegee Airmen took to the skies in 1943, in the first all-African-American fighter squadron, they were fighting not only the Nazis, but also American racism.
Tuskegee Airmen pose with their P-40 Warhawk fighter.
Racial discrimination was nothing new in the US Armed Forces–it had been there since the very beginning. One of the first people killed in the American Revolution was Crispus Attucks, a free African-American who was shot by British troops in the Boston Massacre. During the Revolutionary War, some 5,000 Black troops served in various local militia units. Or, at least they did in the North. In the South, authorities feared the potential consequences of arming and training Black slaves, and refused to allow African-Americans into the militia. In the North, Washington’s Continental Army, faced with a desperate shortage of manpower, lifted its ban on African-American soldiers in 1776 and formed two all-Black Regiments in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. The British commanders in Virginia and New York, meanwhile, issued orders that any African-American slave who joined the English forces would be freed. Over 100,000 slaves joined the British, though fewer than 1,000 were assigned to combat regiments.
In 1812, it was forbidden for African-Americans to join the Army, but the Navy, suffering from manpower shortages, lifted that restriction, and free Blacks served in the US fleet during the war. When the Civil War broke out in 1861, the Union Army decided to try a “military experiment” to see if “Negroes” could be trained for military service, and formed the 54th Massaschusetts Volunteer Regiment, made up of Black freemen troops with white officers. During the “Indian Wars”, two segregated Army units, the 9th and 10th Cavalry, were formed from African-American troopers led by white officers (they earned the nickname “Buffalo Soldiers”). Both of the Buffalo Soldier regiments fought in Cuba during the Spanish-American War in 1898. In 1916, when the US sent military forces into Mexico to hunt down Pancho Villa, the African-American 10th Cavalry was commanded by Lieutenant John Pershing, earning him the contemptuous nickname “Black Jack”. In World War I, now-General Black Jack Pershing commanded the US forces in Europe, where segregated African-American units served in mostly non-combat roles.
When World War II broke out in 1939, the US Army was still segregated. African-Americans were kept in units that usually performed non-combat support roles. In particular, the US Army Air Corps would not accept Black applicants as either pilots or ground personnel, assuming that African-Americans were “incapable” of being trained for these tasks.
In 1940, under pressure from a lawsuit by civil rights groups, President Franklin Roosevelt ordered that the Army Air Corps form segregated African-American air units, and a flight training school for Blacks was established at Tuskegee University in Alabama. Training units were also set up in Illinois for ground maintenance crew and mechanics. African-Americans who successfully completed their training would form the first all-Black air units. The program started with 47 African-American officers and 429 enlisted men, with another 271 being trained as ground support crews.
From the beginning, the entire program faced opposition from within the military. The War Department viewed the whole thing as an “experiment”, and, expecting that the “Negroes” were simply not smart enough to learn to fly, decided not to put a lot of resources into a program that they viewed as doomed to fail. The Black trainees were the recipients of harsh racism on the part of virtually every white officer they encountered. In March 1941 the program received a boost, however, when First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt took an airplane ride with Tuskegee’s chief flight instructor, Charles Anderson. Shortly after that, the first group of 13 African-American graduates from the ground school entered pilot training. Like the Army Air Corp’s other training groups, they received basic flight instruction on the PT-13 Stearman Kaydet, a biplane that was the standard American military flight trainer. In September 1941 Capt Benjamin Davis Jr became the first African-American student to solo at nearby Moton Field, and in March 1942, the first five flight school graduates earned their pilot’s wings. From 1941 to 1945, over 1,000 African-Americans earned pilot’s wings at Tuskegee.
Those who were assigned to bombers received further flight training on the B-25 Mitchell medium bomber at an airfield near Detroit, and became part of the 477th Bombardment Group. This unit never saw combat during the war. Part of the reason for this was delays in training: the Army had never set up a specialized training school for African-American navigators or bombardiers, leaving the unit continuously shorthanded (in 1944 the 477th had only 175 of the 290 air crew it was supposed to have). The unit was also crippled by its white commanders, whose open racism provoked a mutiny among some of the African-American officers.
Tuskegee flight school graduates who were assigned to fighters received further flight training on the P-40 Warhawk, which was already obsolete and could not fly effectively against the German Me-109s or the Japanese Zeros. The first active Tuskegee-trained squadron, the 100th Fighter Squadron, was formed in March 1942, joined shortly after by the 99th Fighter Squadron.
By 1943, the Tuskegee pilots were finally deemed ready for combat, and at the end of May 1943 the 99th Fighter Squadron arrived in Tunisia in northern Africa, a minor theater of the war, as part of the 33rd Fighter Group. Missions began three days later against an Italian air base at the island of Pantelleria. The local US Army Air Force did not want the African-American pilots on his base and tried to reassign them back to the United States, but an intervention by Chief of Staff General George C Marshall allowed the unit to stay in Tunisia. When the Italians surrendered in June 1943, the 99th Squadron was transferred to Sicily, where it flew bomber escort missions. The Tuskegee pilots scored their first air victory in July 1943, when Lt. Charles Hall shot down a German Fw-190. In October, the squadron was moved to provide air cover for US forces at Salerno, then again to the area around Monte Cassino. Most of their missions were ground-attack and air-support, but the squadron also shot down over a dozen German and Italian fighters.
In July 1944, three new fighter squadrons–the 100th, the 301st and the 302nd–were formed from African-American Tuskegee pilots. These were joined with the 99th to form the 332nd Fighter Group, and all of them had their P-40 Warhawks replaced by newer P-51 Mustangs. From their distinctive paint jobs, the new all-Black group became known as the “Redtails”. They began flying bomber escort missions into Germany.
By the end of the war, the Redtails had flown over 9,000 missions. Although they had a total of 111 air victories over German and Italian fighters (losing 98 pilots of their own in combat and accidents), their primary mission was bomber escort, and they were trained to protect the bombers rather than fly off in search of air victories for personal glory. It was later claimed that the Redtails had never lost a bomber under their escort to enemy fighters, but records show that this was not true–around 25 bombers were lost (still significantly lower than the 45 average for a squadron in the 15th Air Force). The Tuskegee Airmen had won 744 Air Medals, 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses, and 14 Bronze Stars. Their performance was one of the factors that led President Harry Truman to sign an executive order in 1948 ending racial segregation in the US military.
One of the Stearman Kaydet PT-13 trainer aircraft used to train the Redtails, known as “The Spirit of Tuskegee”, is on display at the Smithsonian’s Udvar-Hazy Center, where it awaits completion of the Smithsonian Museum of African-American History.