Tuskegee airmen exiting the parachute room, Ramitelli, Italy, March 1945
World War II
This inspiring group of African American fighter pilots achieved tremendous success from high above the battlefields.
By Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
Published May 20, 2020
When war came to Europe in 1939, the United States weighed how to respond and mobilize troops. Not only did African Americans lobby for integration into the Army Air Corps, they also wanted their own flying unit. While history had witnessed their bravery on the battlefield at many crucial moments, especially during the Civil War and as recently as World War I, generations of African Americans had known only the indignities of segregation and prejudice while serving in the U.S. military.
In March of 1941, the Selective Service Act finally outlawed discrimination in recruiting, and the Air Corps began allowing Black applications. The NAACP and the Black press aimed to make an all-Black unit a reality, keeping the pressure on the War Department until the launch of the 99th Pursuit Squadron that year. This group would train in Tuskegee, Alabama, and the subsequent groups of Black pilots would thus become known as Tuskegee Airmen.
Five men withstood the grueling training and the often unfair treatment from White commanders to graduate in the first class on March 7, 1942. One member of that class was Benjamin O. Davis, who would become the first African American three-star general. In 1998, President Bill Clinton would promote him to four-star general.
All in, 450 Black pilots saw action. 66 of them died in action, and 32 became prisoners of war. They flew an incredible 1,578 missions and 15,553 sorties and won 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses, Bronze Stars, Silver Stars, and Legions of Merit, one Presidential Unit Citation, and the Red Star of Yugoslavia. They had proven once again the valor of African Americans on the battlefield.
Aside from Davis, notable Tuskegee Airmen included Robert J. Friend, who went on to direct the government’s Project Blue Book, which studied the possibilities of UFOs. He also fought in the Korean and Vietnam wars, and was among the last of the remaining Tuskegee Airmen when he died in 2019. Charles Hall made history on July 21, 1943 when he shot down an FW-190, marking the first time a Black pilot had scored a victory in Europe. Lee A. Archer shot down three German planes in a single day. Another, Charles McGee, was honored with a brigadier general’s star at age 100 earlier this year.
Tuskegee also trained the 447th Bombardment Group, whose members made a mark by refusing to cave to segregation. The resulting legal battle began a chain of events that led to President Harry Truman finally issuing an executive order to desegregate the armed forces in 1948.
The veterans of the Tuskegee program are exemplars of the Greatest Generation, and their heroics remain forever etched in history.