EAST COAST CHAPTER
Due to the rigid pattern of racial segregation that prevailed in the United States during World War II, 966 Black military aviators were trained at an isolated training complex near the town of Tuskegee, AL and at Tuskegee Institute. Four hundred, fifty Black fighter pilots, under the command of Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. (who was later to become the U.S. Air Force first Black Lt. General), fought in the aerial war over North Africa, Sicily and Europe flying P-40, P-39, P-47, and P-51 type aircraft. These gallant men flew 15,533 sorties and completed 1578 missions with the 12th Tactical U.S. Army Air Force and the 15th Strategic U.S. Army Air Force.
They were called the “Schwartze Vogelmenschen” (Black Birdmen) by the Germans, who both feared and respected them. White American bomber crews reverently referred to them as the “Redtail Angels” because of the identifying red paint on the tail assemblies of their aircraft and their reputation for not losing bombers to enemy fighters while providing escort to bombing missions over strategic targets in Europe.
The 99th Fighter Squadron, which had already distinguished itself over Northern Africa, Sicily and Anzio, was joined by three more Black squadrons (the 100th, 301st and 302nd) to be designated as the 332nd Fighter Group. From Italian bases they also destroyed enemy rail traffic, coastal surveillance stations, and hundreds of vehicles on air to ground strafing missions. Sixty-six of these pilots were killed in aerial combat while another 32 were shot down and captured as prisoners of war.
These Black airmen came home with 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses, Legions of Merit, Silver Stars, Purple Hearts, The Croix de Guerre and the Red Star of Yugoslavia.
Other Black Pilots, navigators, bombardiers and crewmen who were trained for medium bombardment duty were combined with the 332nd combat returnees into the 477th Composite Group (B-25’s and P-47’s). This group never entered combat because of the surrender of Germany and Japan in 1945. Significantly, the group’s demands for parity and recognition as competent military professionals, combined with the magnificent wartime record of the 99th and the 332nd, caused the U.S. War Department to review its racial policies.
For every Black pilot there were 10 other civilian or military Black men and women on ground support duty. Many of these men and women remained in the military service during the post-World War II era and spearheaded the integration of the armed forces of the United States with their integration into the U.S. Air Force in 1949. Their success and achievement is evidenced by the elevation of three of these pioneers to flag rank: the late Gen. Daniel “Chappie” James; our nation’s first Black four-star general, Lt. Gen. Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., USAF (Ret.); and Major Gen. Lucius Theus, USAF (Ret.).
Major achievements are attributable to many of those who returned to civilian life and earned positions of leadership and respect as businessmen, corporate executives, religious leaders, lawyers, doctors, bankers, educators and politicians.
Nearly 30 years of anonymity ended in 1972 with the founding of the Tuskegee Airmen, Inc. in Detroit, Michigan. Organized as a nonpartisan, non-military, and non-profit national entity, the organization exists primarily to motivate and inspire young Americans to become participants in our nation’s democratic process.
For more information, visit The Tuskegee Airmen Story page and the Resources page. Or download a PDF of The Brief History of the Tuskegee Airmen as revised by the Alonzo Smith, Jr., Lt. Col. USAF (Ret.).
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