The Tuskegee Airmen of World War II

The Tuskegee Airmen were the first Black Americans to serve as military pilots in the US Army Air Force and set the stage for desegregation of the military.

Aug 29, 2023By Amy Hayes, BA History w/ English minor
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Tuskegee Airmen Colonel Benjamin O. Davis (right), Marcellus G. Smith (center), and Roscoe C. Brown (left) of the 332nd Fighter Group by Toni Frissell, 1945, via Library of Congress, Washington DC


The Tuskegee Airmen were the first Black Americans to be trained and serve as military pilots in the United States Air Force. Segregation and the belief that African Americans were incapable of leadership positions at the time created many obstacles for African Americans who wanted to participate in aerial combat in World War II. The Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP) was created in 1938 to increase military strength and manpower in anticipation of a second World War. As a result of the program, segregated facilities were established to allow African Americans to train on combat aircraft.


Creation of the Tuskegee Airmen Program

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Tuskegee Airmen training at Tuskegee Army Airfield, courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration, via Smithsonian Institution


Prior to World War II, African American roles in the military were limited to certain positions. Public Law 18 was passed on April 3, 1939 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, which helped establish a segregated Civilian Pilot Training Program for the US Air Corps. Along with Tuskegee Institute, other colleges involved in the program included Hampton Institute, Delaware State College, Howard University, North Carolina A & T College, and West Virginia State College.


The pilot training program at Tuskegee Army Airfield in Alabama acted as an experiment to prove that African Americans were incapable of operating complex equipment for combat aircraft. This notion was based on a survey conducted by the Army War College in 1925. The report entitled Employment of Negro Manpower in War analyzed whether Black military service members were fit for their duties. One of the report’s conclusions stated, “Compared to the white man, he [African Americans] is admittedly of inferior mentality. He is inherently weak in character.” White officers and other military personnel were against allowing Black Americans into the pilot training program, but President Roosevelt overruled this resistance by supporting it. The experiment completely disproved the statements outlined in the Army War College report as the Tuskegee Airmen were very successful.


Who Were the Tuskegee Airmen?

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First class of Tuskegee Airmen with Major James Ellison saluting cadet Mac Ross, 1941, via Smithsonian Institution


The need for additional combat personnel became more apparent as Germany gained ground in France in 1940. This encouraged the US Army to expand its programs to allow African Americans to serve in more positions than previously allowed. However, the US Army maintained the “separate but equal” policy.

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All African American pilots trained at the Tuskegee Army Airfield are considered Tuskegee Airmen. Approximately 992 Black pilots graduated from the Tuskegee program, and 450 of these men served in combat roles in World War II. The training program at Tuskegee was established on July 23, 1941. The first class of cadets were accepted into the Air Corps in March 1941 and began training in November.


The men in the first class at Tuskegee Army Air Field were the first African Americans to be accepted for Air Corps flight training. All members of the first class had proven credentials, including pilot’s licenses and college degrees. Of the 13 airmen in the first class, four of the cadets became second lieutenants, and five earned their silver pilot wings. Tuskegee Airfield was initially designed only to train pilots, but navigator and bombardier training was included later in the program. Lieutenant Colonel Noel F. Parrish trained the African American pilots and ground crews at Tuskegee. Parrish later earned the rank of brigadier general. Tuskegee Institute had great success rates for Black pilots.


Bombardment Groups & Fighter Squadrons

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Tuskegee Airman Colonel Benjamin O. Davis sitting in the cockpit of a P-51 plane, via Smithsonian Institution


The 99th Pursuit Squadron was the first all-African American unit part of the Tuskegee Airfield training program, later becoming the 99th Fighter Squadron. Notable Tuskegee Airman Colonel Benjamin Davis O. Jr. was selected as the commanding officer for the 99th Fighter Squadron. The squadron trained at Tuskegee Airfield with Curtiss P-40s and later Bell P-39s. They were sent on their first overseas trip in April 1943 to French Morocco in North Africa. They also participated in aerial battles over Sicily, Italy and other parts of Europe. In July 1943, Hoosier Charles Hall became the first Tuskegee Airman to shoot down an enemy aircraft, a Nazi FW-190, during an escort mission.


In February 1944, the 99th Fighter Squadron was combined with the 100th, 301st, and 302nd fighter squadrons. The four squadrons combined created the 332nd Fighter Group. Colonel Davis was selected to become the commanding officer and later earned the rank of lieutenant general. By 1943, nearly 200,000 African Americans were enlisted in the US Army Air Forces. The 332nd Fighter Group was a part of the 15th Air Force. They were responsible for protecting American bomber pilots from German fighter planes. Tuskegee Airmen gained the nickname Black Redtail Angels because the tails of their planes were painted red. German pilots referred to them as Black Birdmen, or Schwarze Vogelmenschen.


A Black bomber unit called the 477th Bombardment Group (Medium) was organized by the Army Air Force in June 1943. The pilots for this bomber unit couldn’t be trained at Tuskegee because the institute was already overwhelmed with current training. All-white training institutions were forced to accept African Americans into their training programs to fulfill personnel demands at the height of the war. Training at integrated institutions was less successful because Black pilots, navigators, and bombardiers faced unfair treatment.


Racial Discrimination & the Freeman Field Mutiny

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Tuskegee Airmen standing outside of a parachute room on active duty in Ramitelli, Italy by Toni Frissell, 1945, via Library of Congress, Washington DC


All African American personnel were to be trained separately from white personnel. Some training institutes required African Americans to use segregated public facilities on base, despite the US Army Regulation 210-10, which prohibited the segregation of public facilities. African Americans faced racial discrimination at integrated institutions, including Freeman Field, which resulted in the Freeman Field Mutiny.


Training for the 477th Bombardment Group originally took place at the Selfridge Field near Detroit, Michigan. Commanding officer General Frank O. Hunter was against allowing the base to be integrated under his command. Congress provided $75,000 in funding to build a new officer’s club for African Americans to train separately from whites. However, before the new officer’s club was built, the 477th Bombardment trainees were transferred to Godman Field in Kentucky and then to Freeman Field in Indiana. Colonel Robert Selway, commanding officer at Freeman Field, stood by General Hunter’s beliefs that Black and white trainees should be segregated.


To enforce segregation at the training base, African Americans were considered trainees while white trainees were considered instructors. African American trainees were assigned to an old, beat-up building known as Officer’s Club #1. The Officer’s Club #2 facility was newer, and only white officers were allowed in the building. One of the first non-violent protests in the US Army Air Force broke out as a result of these base protocols. Lieutenant Coleman Young, who was also a former labor leader, decided to lead a protest on April 5, 1945. African American officers requested to enter the Officer’s Club #2 building but were denied access. Another group of officers, including Lieutenant Marsden Thompson, proceeded to pass by the officer on duty to enter Officer’s Club #2, and nothing happened. Sixty Black officers were arrested the following day for entering or trying to enter Club #2.


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African American officers who participated in the non-violent Freeman Field protest preparing to be transferred to Godman Field, 1945, via Smithsonian Institution


General Hunter and Colonel Selway issued base order Regulation 85-2, which prohibited Black officers from entering Club #2 and required them to be segregated in other facilities on the base, including dining halls and housing. The Black officers were ordered to sign a statement that they would adhere to the new base order. About 100 officers refused to sign the statement, disobeying the orders of their supervising officers. This caused them to be arrested and transferred to Godman Field, where they were turned over to armed guards. Godman Field also housed German prisoners of war, who had more freedom to move around the base than the arrested officers.


Word got out about the discrimination the officers faced, and African American-run press, labor unions, and civil rights groups demanded the charges against the officers be dropped. General George C. Marshall, the US Army Chief of Staff, ordered the release of the officers in April 1945. The officers received a letter of reprimand in their permanent files. Three of the officers were held for trial, but two were released with fines. One officer, Lieutenant Roger Terry, received a court martial and was fined and dishonorably discharged on the grounds of jostling. The 477th bomber squadrons were all deactivated by 1947.


Achievements of the Tuskegee Airmen of World War II


The Tuskegee Airmen acted as protectors of American bombers that were vulnerable to German fighter aircraft in World War II. They successfully demonstrated that they were more than capable of learning complex combat aircraft systems, and more than 16% scored in the top three categories in the Army General Classification Test (AGCT).


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Colonel Benjamin O. Davis (left) and Edward C. Gleed (right) in flight gear at the Ramitelli, Italy base by Toni Frissell, 1945, via Library of Congress, Washington DC


The Tuskegee Airmen received a long list of awards and recognitions for their efforts in World War II. For masterful tactical support in the summer of 1943 and 1944, the 99th Fighter Squadron received two Presidential Unit Citations. The 332nd Fighter Group was awarded a Presidential Unit Citation for their efforts in damaging three ME-262 German jets and five other fighter jets during an escorting mission on March 24, 1945. The group also earned eight Purple Heart medals, 14 Bronze Stars, and 96 Distinguished Flying Crosses.


The Tuskegee Airmen totaled 15,553 sorties and 1,578 missions during their time with the 12th Tactical Air Force and 15th Strategic Air Force. Only 66 pilots were killed in combat, with another 32 being captured as prisoners of war after being downed, giving them one of the lowest loss records compared to other escort fighter groups. President Bill Clinton removed the reprimands of the Freeman Field Mutiny officers and restored the rank of Lieutenant Roger Terry in 1995.


The Tuskegee Airmen were not only successful in aerial combat, but they also set a precedent for future Black American enlistment in all US military branches. President Harry S. Truman issued Executive Order 9981 on July 26, 1948, formally banning segregation in the US Armed Forces. The executive order also called for the creation of the President’s Committee on Equality of Treatment and Opportunity in the Armed Forces to review military regulations and revise them as needed to accomplish equality of treatment, regardless of race, color, religion, or national origin.

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By Amy HayesBA History w/ English minorAmy is a contributing writer with a passion for historical research and the written word. She holds a BA in history from Old Dominion University with a concentration in English. Amy grew up in the historic state of Virginia and quickly became fascinated by the intricate details of how people, places, and things came to be. She specializes in topics on American history, Ancient and Medieval England, law, and the environment.