The Tuskegee Airmen (Black History 365)

Welcome readers to another entry in Black History 365, a series where I explain, educate and explore historical events, unsung black figures in world history, and recount the struggles and triumphs of black people worldwide. In this entry, I will present the story behind the “Tuskegee Airmen”, how they formed, the adversity they faced and the ways their contributions to aviation help pave the way for future generation of black pilots. Below is the story, so let’s get started.

The date is March 19th 1941 and the U.S. War Department established the 99th pursuit Squadron, which along with a few other squadrons combined to become better known as the Tuskegee Airmen. This aviator team consisted of America’s first black military pilots and once assembled they had to not only endure with the racism at home (America) but confront it from enemies abroad. However, despite the extra obstacles they had to overcome, they would go on to compile an exemplary record in the Mediterranean and European theaters of War World II, and that would help them pave the way for desegregation of the military. 

Tuskegee Airmen
Tuskegee Airmen receiving their commissions at the Tuskegee Army Flying School in Alabama in 1942.

Even though African Americans had fought in every major U.S. conflict dating back to the revolutionary war, they were always confined to menial jobs that segregate them from whites. As late as 1925 an Army war college report called them “ a sub-species of the human family”. The rest of the report went with degrading remarks that held no truth whatsoever. You have to understand that physiological and physical pain was one of the ways that whites had to exude their “superiority” during the Jim Crow days. The rest of the quote stated; “they perform poorly as soldiers due to their cowardly, subserviant, superstitious, amoral, and mentality inferior nature. In retaliation black advocacy groups  and newspapers attempted to counter that pseudoscience. However, as WWII approached, the militarily remained staunchly opposed both to integration and to putting blacks in positions of authority. For example, in 1940 U.S. Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall, a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on the Marshall Plan, remarked that now was “not the time for critical experiments which would inevitably have a highly destructive effect on morale.” With that said, the navy and war secretaries agreed with the latter writing that “leadership is not embedded in the Negro race yet” and that mixing white and black troops would be “trouble.” 

Tuskegee Airmen prepare for a flight from Tuskegee Army Airfield, 1943.
Tuskegee Airmen prepare for a flight from Tuskegee Army Airfield, 1943.

Due to Jim Crow laws, blacks were barred from flying in the U.S. Army Air Corps (The predecessor to Air Force). In fact, they rarely were allowed to enter the cockpits. Moreover, census records show that only a few dozen licensed black pilots lived in the entire U.S. prior to WWII. That number would begin to finally increase when several historically balack colleges were included in the Civilian Pilot Training Program which congress created in 1939 to ensure that pilots would be available should a war break out. Even with implemented the Air Corps remained opposed to admitting black recruits. However, in 1940 Republican presidential nominee Wendell Wilkie promised to desegregate the military, prompting his opponent, Demorcratic president Franklin D. Roosevelt , to authorize the entitlement of African American aviators, among other modest civil rights concessions aimed at keeping the blakc vote. On January 16th, 1941, it was then announced that an all-black fighter pilot unit would be trained at the Tuskegee institute in Alabama, a historically black college founded by Booker T. Washington. 

The War Department officially established the 99th Pursuit Squadron (later renamed the 99th Fighter Squadron on March 19, 1941, and it activated the unit three days later. Furthermore, before the first cadets even arrived, the program got a publicity boost when First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was taken up in a plane by C. Alfred “Chief Anderson, a black aviation pioneer who served as the Tuskegee Institute chief flight instructor. Nevertheless, many top military officials, including the war secretary, reportedly expected the Tuskegee experiment to fail. As a result, local whites expressed opposition, and at one point nearly initiated a race riot following a tense confrontation with an armed black military policeman. Meanwhile, about 100 whites signed a petition lamenting that the Tuskegee Army Air Field which was built at a great expense purely so that preexisting army air fields wouldn’t have to integrate. This kind of action could be perceived as fear that might cut off the “only outlet of expansion for white citizens of Tuskegee.”

Tuskegee airmen attending a briefing in Italy in 1945. First row (l-r): Hiram E. Man, unidentified airman, Newman C. Golden, Bertram W. Wilson Jr., Samuel W. Watts Jr., Second row (l-R): Armour G. McDemoe, Howard C. Gamble, Harry T. Steward, Jr, Earle R. Lane, Wickliffe, Wyrain T. Shell, Harold M. Morris, John E. Edwards, John H. Porter, James H. Fischer, Wyrain T. Shell. Third row (l-r): William E. “Porky” Rice, Tony Weaver, Charles L. White, George Arnold Lynch, Samuel L. Washington, Calvin J. Spann, Frank N. Wright.
Tuskegee airmen attending a briefing in Italy in 1945. First row (l-r): Hiram E. Man, unidentified airman, Newman C. Golden, Bertram W. Wilson Jr., Samuel W. Watts Jr., Second row (l-R): Armour G. McDemoe, Howard C. Gamble, Harry T. Steward, Jr, Earle R. Lane, Wickliffe, Wyrain T. Shell, Harold M. Morris, John E. Edwards, John H. Porter, James H. Fischer, Wyrain T. Shell. Third row (l-r): William E. “Porky” Rice, Tony Weaver, Charles L. White, George Arnold Lynch, Samuel L. Washington, Calvin J. Spann, Frank N. Wright.

The airmen lived primarily in primitive tents in the inaugural class of Tuskegee pilots studied subjects such as radio code, navigation and meteorology. They also took to the air for more hands -on learning. In regards to that, of the 13 original cadets, five made it to graduation in March 1942, including Benjamin O. Davis Jr. who would eventually become the units commander. More graduations quickly followed, and the program was expanded to comprise not only the 99th Fighter Squadron, but also the 100th 301 st and 302nd fighter squadron, which together made up the 332nd Fighter Group. (Also considered Tuskegee Airmen are the black bomber pilots of the 477th Bombardment group, as well as all support personnel.) Overall, 922 pilots completed the Tuskegee training program, nearly half of whom were shipped overseas, where they gained fame for their unparalleled success at escorting bombers on long – range raids deep into Nazi – controlled terrority. They would fly some 1,600 missions and destroying over 260 enemy aircraft, the Tuskegee Airmen helped lay the foundation for Harry S. Truman’s decision  to desegregate the armed forces in 1948. 

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