Chanute Field, Rantoul, Illinois March 19, 1941

Pressed on one side by Black news media and civil rights groups demanding that pilot training be opened up to Afri­can Amer­i­cans and on the other by an up­coming re-election, Pre­si­dent Franklin D. Roose­velt in 1940 autho­rized the crea­tion of a segre­gated flight school and an all-Black fighter squad­ron. On this date, March 19, 1941, in Illi­nois, the U.S. Army Air Corps’ 99th Pursuit Squad­ron (“pursuit” being the pre-World War II term for “fighter”) was acti­vated with­out a single pilot for the pur­pose of training an officer corps and ground support person­nel (e.g., air­craft mechanics, supply clerks, armorers, and weather fore­casters). Over 270 African Amer­i­can enlisted men became the pio­neering core of Black squad­rons forming at Moton and Maxwell Fields in Macon County, Alabama.

In June 1941 the pilot-training phase of the program offi­cially began with the forma­tion, at Ala­bama’s Tuske­gee Insti­tute, of the 99th Fighter Squad­ron, the first flying unit for Afri­can Amer­i­cans, earning pro­gram parti­ci­pants their nick­name—Tuskegee Air­men. The segre­gated airmen and ground crew, ini­tially con­sisting of 47 offi­cers and 429 en­listed men, were placed under the com­mand of Capt. Benja­min O. Davis, Jr., only the fourth black Amer­i­can to gradu­ate from West Point Mili­tary Acad­emy in New York state, which he accom­plished despite being ignored and ostra­cized by faculty and white cadets at the academy.

Tentatively scheduled to fly air defense over Liberia, the combat-ready 99th was diverted to Tunis, North Africa, to support the Allied invasion of Sicily in July 1943 (Opera­tion Husky). The following year the squad­ron provided close air support for Lt. Gen. Mark Clark’s U.S. Fifth Army in Italy during its assaults on Foggia and Anzio and for French and Polish armies in their attack on the historic hill­top abbey, Monte Cassino. For its missions over Sicily and again for shooting down 13 enemy air­craft while covering the Allied inva­sion of the Ital­ian main­land during the Anzio cam­paign (Oper­a­tion Shingle) the 99th Fighter Squad­ron received two Distinguished Unit Citations.

In mid-1944 the 99th, joined by three other squad­rons out of Tuske­gee to form the 332nd Fighter Group, was assigned to co­nduct bomber escort mis­sions over Roma­nia, France, Austria, Czecho­slo­vakia, Poland, Yugo­sla­via, Greece, and Germany. In all, Tuske­gee avia­tors, who even­tually num­bered close to 1,000, flew more than 15,000 mis­sions, shot down 111 en­e­my air­craft, and destroyed or damaged 273 on the ground at a cost of 66 of their own planes. More than 10,000 African Amer­i­can men and women served as their vital sup­port per­son­nel. For its war­time efforts Tuske­gee Air­men earned a total of three Distin­guished Unit Cita­tions. Addi­tion­ally, the all-black avi­ators earned more than 850 awards, including 95 Distin­guished Flying Crosses, eight Purple Hearts, one Silver Star, and 744 Air Medals.

The unquestionable excellence and commit­ment of the Tuske­gee Air­men drove home to mili­tary and civil­ian autho­ri­ties alike the illogic and ineffi­ciency of racial segre­ga­tion in the U.S. military. The record of the air­men helped per­suade the Air Force—largely for reasons of opera­tional self-interest—and Presi­dent Harry S. Truman to move to deseg­re­gate the armed services after the war. Ben­ja­min Davis, by then a colonel, helped draft the Air Force plan for implementing Truman’s order.

In Standing Up Against Hate: How Black Women in the Army Helped Change the Course of WWII award-winning young-readers author Mary Cronk Farrell tells the remark­able, little-known story of how the only all-women, all-black unit of the Women’s Army Corps (WACs) ever deployed over­seas brought speed, effi­ciency, and order to a chron­ically chaotic mail processing and delivery system in the last six months of the war in Europe. Letters and pack­ages from the States were stacked floor to ceiling in six air­craft hangers in England. Under the plucky leader­ship of Major Charity Adams, a former high school math teacher from South Caro­lina, the 6888th Central Postal Direc­tory Bat­talion began the process of sorting and deliv­ering mail to over seven mil­lion GIs, civil­ians, and Red Cross workers during the remainder of the war, first from Birming­ham, England, and later from out­posts in Rouen and Paris, France. The motto of the Six-Triple Eight as the women liked to call their bat­talion: “No mail, low morale.” Farrell’s book is a must-read addi­tion to the canon of coming-of-age books that saw the U.S. armed forces trans­formed from a racially seg­re­gated force into a deseg­re­gated one where the color of one’s skin slowly but even­tually mattered far, far less than a person’s talent, ability, posi­tive atti­tude, and hard work. In Farrell’s first-rate account, Major (later Lt. Col.) Adams (1918‑2002) is a prime example of this saga operating on a per­sonal level. Her accounts of other black service­women add to her thesis: namely, the prom­i­nent role African Amer­i­cans of both sexes played in over­coming insti­tu­tional pre­ju­dice and deseg­re­gating the U.S. mili­tary. A monu­ment dedi­cated to the 855 sol­diers who served in the 6888th Central Postal Direc­tory Bat­talion was erected at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, in late 2018.—Norm Haskett

Tuskegee Airmen, the First African American Military Aviators in the U.S. Armed Forces

First class of Tuskegee cadets, Tuskegee, Alabama, 1941Tuskegee Airmen, Southern Italy or North Africa

Left: Maj. James A. Ellison reviews the first class of Tuske­gee cadets and the flight line at the U.S. Army Air Corps basic and advanced flying school, Tuske­gee, Ala­bama, 1941. During its five-year history the flying school trained almost 1,000 avi­a­tors who filled the ranks of the 99th Fighter Squadron, the 332nd Fighter Group, and the 477th Bombard­ment Group. Nearly half served in com­bat during the war, com­piling an impres­sive record flying 15,000 sorties in North Africa, Sicily, and Italy.

Right: Tuskegee Airmen, circa May 1942 to August 1943. Location unknown but likely Southern Italy or North Africa.

Tuskegee Airmen: 99th Fighter Squadron mechanic and P-51 MustangTuskegee Airmen: 332nd Fighter Group pilots at Ramitelli Airfield, Italy

Left: 99th Fighter Squadron mechanic reloading a P‑51 Mustang, September 1944.

Right: Five members of the Fifteenth Air Force 332nd Fighter Group at Italy’s Ramitelli Air­field in Foggia, Cala­bria, circa August 1944. Formally, the 99th Fighter Squa­dron formed the 332nd Fighter Group and the 477th Bom­bard­ment Group of the U.S. Army Air Forces (suc­ces­sor to the Army Air Corps). They were known as “Red Tails” for the distinctive crim­son tails adorning their P‑51 Mus­tangs; they earned their affec­tionate nick­name “Red Tail Angels” for staying close to the B‑17 and B‑24 heavy bombers they escorted over Central and Southern Europe, a task that would make the Tuske­gee Air­men famous. Over the course of 179 escort mis­sions, enemy pilots only shot down 27 Allied bombers—far fewer than the average fighter escort. By some reports, bomber crews would specif­i­cally request the Tuske­gee Air­men as their escorts. In their longest escort mission of the war they flew all the way to Berlin, the German capital, shooting down three German Me 262 jets during the raid and earning the air­men their third Distin­guished Unit Cita­tion. German adver­saries both feared and respected the Afri­can American pilots, calling them “Schwarze Vogelmenschen” (“Black birdmen”)

U.S. Army Air Forces’ Tribute to Tuskegee Airmen