THE TUSKEGEE AIRMEN STORY: COMBAT OPERATIONS
The bottom line in military aviation is success in aerial combat. All of the training that military airmen receive is aimed at that objective. The Air Force had decided to train Black airmen as fighter pilots. This was the most difficult type of combat aviation. The fighter pilot is required to navigate, and precisely handle his fast plane, maneuvering it at terrific speeds in actual combat, mastering the technique of accurate and properly directed fire in aerial dog fights, and exercising split-second judgment in unexpected situations and emergencies.
During World War II, the mission of these fighter pilots covered tactical strikes in support of ground troops which included armed reconnaissance, counter air protection, dive bombing, strafing attacks and the protection of bombers from enemy fighters while they are on strategic bombing missions.
The 99th Fighter Squadron with 26 pilots commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Benjamin 0. Davis, Jr., were hit with additional morale problems associated with racial discrimination by the failure of the Army Air Force to find an overseas base that would accept them, once the squadron had completed all of its training. Successive deployment dates passed and the men were forced to continue to fly training missions for several months after they had satisfactorily passed all Army Air Force tests in preparation for combat.
Finally, the 99th was moved to North Africa in mid-April 1943, and after a short period of theater indoctrination at Fez, Morocco, the squadron flew to a base near Tunis and began combat on June 2, 1943.
Discrimination did not end when the Tuskegee Airmen began to fight America's enemies in World War II. After training in the North African Theater, the 99th was first assigned to the 33rd Fighter Group. The commander of that unit had no interest in the 99th, in fact, was hostile to it and decided to segregate it in every respect, including during its initial combat. With previously untested units, the 33rd Commander sent elements of experienced units to accompany and lead virgin units into combat. In other words, some experienced flight leaders would lead a new unit for stability and in order to build confidence. But with the 99th he did not follow this procedure. The first time anybody in the 99th was attacked was the first time anybody in the flight had experienced hostile action. The 33rd Commander was, moreover, eager to libel the Tuskegee Airmen, and only a very few days after their introduction to combat, he recommended that the unit be sent home. His recommendation was supported up through all levels of Army Air Force command, including Air Force Commander, General "Hap" Arnold. The decision was reversed however, by General George C. Marshall, after an eloquent defense of the 99lh by its commander, Lieutenant Colonel Benjamin O. Davis, Jr.
Based on Lieutenant Colonel Davis' testimony, Marshall determined that the 99th deserved a greater test than just 90 days to prove themselves. In the meantime, additional airmen were being trained and organized into three fighter squadrons, the I00th, the 301st, and the 302nd. On October 13, 1943, these three squadrons were designated the 332nd Fighter Group, and Colonel Davis, brought back from overseas to lead this group, took command.
While Colonel Davis was busy back in the States preparing the men of the 332nd for combat, the men of the 99'\ under the command of Major George Roberts, now flying in the 79th Fighter Group under the command of Colonel Earl Bates, began to score in combat. On the morning of January 27, 1944, after more than three weeks of close air support missions (where the fighter pilots provide machine gun and dive bombing support to army troops in contact with the enemy) fifteen pilots of the 99th, flying war-weary P-40s, met a large number of Germans flying the much superior Focke Wulf 190, and shot down six German aircraft and damaged another four. Considering the mismatch in aircraft capabilities, it was a remarkable performance. That afternoon three more German aircraft were shot down and a fourth was listed as probably destroyed. The next day, January 28, the Tuskegee Airmen shot down four more aircraft.
While the 99th was scoring brilliantly as a part of the 79th Fighter Group, the 332nd Fighter Group, under Colonel Davis, landed in Italy on February 3, 1944. Four days later, they began combat operations under the 62nd Fighter Wing of the I2th Air Force, flying out of their new base at Montecorvino, near Salerno.
On July 5, 1944, the 99th was merged into the 332nd Fighter Group, which was located near Ramitelli, Italy. The 332nd Fighter Group now consisted of the 99th, 100th, the 301st, and the 302nd Fighter Squadrons, making it the only four-squadron group in 15th Air Force theater of operations.
The men of the 332nd knew that upon their performance depended the future of Blacks in military aviation. This was a heavy burden for them to carry in addition to all of the other life-threatening risks faced by fighter pilots in combat. Although this weight was willingly accepted, make no mistake, it was a considerable burden.
At first, the Group was assigned the less sophisticated P-39 aircraft to operate, but in May the 332nd was assigned the high-performance P-47, and soon thereafter the P-51 Mustang, the best fighter developed by the U.S. during World War II.
While fighting the Germans, both in North Africa and Italy, the Tuskegee Airmen flew more than 1500 missions -- some 15,000 combat sorties. A look at just a few of their missions in first-line fighters will illustrate the diversity of their combat assignments, and a measure of their success.
For example, on June 9, 1944, the men of the 332nd, before they are joined by the 99th Fighter Squadron, scored their first kills on the first of a series of 200 bomber-escort missions that earned the 332nd "Redtails" the unique distinction of unparalleled limited loss of friendly bomber aircraft to an enemy fighter.
That day, with Colonel Davis leading, thirty-nine P-47s took off from the 332nd,s third base in six months, Ramitelli, on the east coast of central Italy, escorting B-24s to targets in Munich, Germany. As the mission approached Udine, Italy, a formation of Me-109s made a diving attack on the American bombers. The Tuskegee Airmen pursued the enemy. Lieutenant Wendell Pruitt soon closed on the tail of a German fighter and shot it down. In one segment of the battle, Colonel Davis led a flight of eight P-47s in an attack on eight Me-109s, and the Tuskegee Airmen bagged several more enemy aircraft. By the time the 332nd had returned to Ramitelli, the 39 Tuskegee Airmen had engaged in battle more than one hundred enemy aircraft, destroying five of the enemy and damaging another.
The 332nd was a fighting outfit, well trained, well disciplined and eager to fight. And it did not require Colonel Davis leading the unit for it to fight well.
On June 25, Wendell O. Pruitt, leading a flight of Tuskegee Airmen together with Lieutenant Gwynn Pierson, jointly sank a German destroyer using only machine guns. This was the only such sinking in the entire war, and a most important victory for the Tuskegee Airmen.
On July 18, sixty-one P-5ls, with Captain Lee Rayford in the lead, escorted American bombers to southern German targets. The mission was to escort the bombers to the I.P. (initial point of their run on the target) and pick them up as they withdrew from the target. As it turned out the bombers were late, and the fighter pilots, having aircraft with much shorter range, grew increasingly concerned. The Tuskegee Airmen knew that if they departed, the bombers would have no protection for the most dangerous part of the mission, and would pay dearly. They also knew that each second of delay endangered the fighters, for they might not have enough fuel to fly back to their home base. Nevertheless, the 332nd pilots waited longer than their orders required and escorted the tardy bombers to their target, taking on more German aircraft than the sixty-one in their formation. During this engagement, the 332nd pilots shot down eleven German fighters without losing a single pilot.
On into the summer of 1944, the pilots of the 332nd Fighter Group continued to score impressive victories. On July 24, fifty-three P-5ls of the 332nd Group escorted bombers to southern Germany with the added mission of conducting a fighter sweep of the target area after the bombers have dropped their bombs. Again outnumbered, the Tuskegee Airmen destroyed four enemy aircraft without losing any of their own.
On March 24, 1945, the 332nd was called upon to participate in a cooperative mission with five other fighter groups to escort bombers over Berlin. This was a maximum effort mission. Colonel Davis led fifty-nine P-51 fighters north toward Germany on a 1600-mile round-trip flight. The mission was to provide maximum protection for the bombers. The 332nd's assignment was to rendezvous with the bombers at Brux, about 150 miles south of Berlin, and escort them to the I.P. at the edge of the city. The target was the Daimler-Benz tank assembly plant, the most heavily protected target in the Third Reich. This assignment was a very high honor for the group as well as an indication of the respect and confidence that the high command had finally developed for the Tuskegee Airmen. As they approached Berlin they met a swarm of German fighters, which included at least thirty of the new jet-fighter aircraft in the German inventory, the Me-262.
The 332nd Fighter Group was supposed to have been relieved at the I.P. by another fighter group, but the relieving unit failed to make the rendezvous. Despite low fuel and ammunition, the 332nd stayed with the bombers. Closer to the target, the bombers were attacked by another formation of German jet fighters which were successfully fought off by the 332nd pilots. These Tuskegee Airmen flew into the teeth of the heaviest defenses of the war and fought off the very best that the German Air Force had, and did not lose a single bomber to hundreds of attacks. At the end of this mission, the 332nd could claim three German jets downed and another six damaged with the loss of only one of their P-5ls. Prior to that day, only two of the German jets had been shot down by the Americans.
On this mission, Colonel Davis was forced by engine trouble to turn back just before the group reached the LP. He turned the formation over to Captain Armour McDaniel.
The 332nd's greatest air-to-air combat triumph of thirteen kills in one day was on March 31, 1945. The next day, 12 more aircraft were shot down for a total of 25 kills in two days.
On April 26, 1945, the Tuskegee Airmen of the 332nd Fighter Group had the distinction of destroying the last four enemy aircraft shot down in the Mediterranean Theater of Operations during World War II. Eleven days later the war in Europe ended.
During the course of the war, the Tuskegee Airmen lost 66 pilots killed in the combat zone, and in addition, 32 were shot down and became prisoners of war (POW). They destroyed or damaged 409 German aircraft, over 950 units of ground transportation, and sank a destroyer with machine gun fire alone, which was a unique accomplishment.
The record of the Tuskegee Airmen in combat is outstanding, however it is measured. The men of the 99th and those in the other three squadrons, the 100th the 301st, and the 302nd—all four comprising the 332nd Fighter Group—performed brilliantly, despite being trained under difficult circumstances, in a "Jim Crow" atmosphere.