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.

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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