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 in 1941 in Illi­nois, the Army Air Force’s 99th Pur­suit Squad­ron (“pursuit” being the pre-World War II term for “fighter”) was acti­vated. 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 pro­gram began offi­cially with the forma­tion, at Tus­ke­gee Insti­tute, of the 99th Fighter Squad­ron, the first flying unit for Afri­can Amer­i­cans, earning pro­gram parti­ci­pants their nick­name—Tus­ke­gee Air­men. The air­men and ground crew were placed under the com­mand of Capt. Benja­min O. Davis, Jr., then one of the few black gradu­ates of West Point. 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. In mid-1944 the 99th was assigned to con­duct bomber es­cort missions over Roma­nia, France, Aus­tria, Czecho­slo­vakia, Poland, Yugo­sla­via, and Greece. In all, Tus­ke­gee avia­tors, who even­tually num­bered close to 1,000, flew more than 15,000 mis­sions, shot down 111 en­e­my planes, and de­stroyed or damaged 273 on the ground at a cost of 66 of their own planes. More than 10,000 black men and women served as their vital support per­son­nel. For its war­time efforts the squad­ron earned three Distin­guished Unit Cita­tions. 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. Their record 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.

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, and 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.

99th Fighter Squadron mechanic and P-51 Mustang332nd 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 Ramitelli Air­field, Foggia, Italy, 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. 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 bombers they escorted over Central and Southern Europe. 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