Although the airplanes of the 1920's and 1930's were not nearly as complicated as those we use today, they were still something which required skill to fly. Many people, including those in the United States Army Air Corps, felt African Americans were not capable of obtaining these skills. Bessie Coleman, and African American woman born in Texas in 1892, became interested in flying after reading about the air war in Europe during World War I. She could not find a flying school in the United States which would train an African American woman and earned her license from the Federation Aeronautique Internationale in France.
Bessie was the first woman to earn an International Aviation License and the world's first licensed black aviator. After her death in an aviation accident, the Bessie Coleman Aero Club was established in Los Angeles, California in 1929 to teach African Americans to fly. In 1995 the US Postal Service issued a Bessie Coleman commemorative stamp.
Other private African American flying schools also started training pilots. Early in 1939 the US began the Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP) at facilities near colleges and universities. Tuskegee Institute in Alabama became a part of this program.
TRAINING AT TUSKEGEE
The military still did not want to train African Americans, but President Franklin D. Roosevelt became convinced that America needed an operational African American pilot training program at Tuskegee. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt traveled to Tuskegee in April 1941 and accepted an offer to fly with Charles A. “Chief” Anderson, an African American who later trained many of the pilots in the Tuskegee program. By the end of World War II, nearly 1000 pilots had trained at Tuskegee.
Basic flight training took place at Moton Field and advanced training at the newly constructed Tuskegee Army Air Field. In April, 2008, Moton Field was dedicated as a part of the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site in Alabama.
Restored Piper Cub located at the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site, Alabama
(from Special Collections & Archives digital images)
Stearman PT-17 biplanes and Piper Cub single wing planes were used by the Army Air Corps in basic training and the more advanced training saw the use of the challenging T-6 Texan. Upon completion of training they graduated to P-40 Warhawk aircraft. The airmen also flew the unique P-39 Airacobra, which featured the engine behind the pilot and a cockpit access door in the fuselage, the P-47 Thunderbolt, which pilots called the “Jug,” and the more advanced P-51 Mustang which boasted an engine of over 1000 horsepower.
Singer Lena Horne with Tuskegee Airmen, Rual Bell, Major L. Whitmon, Edward Moody, and Celes King III
(from the Tuskegee Airmen collection)
The training bases at Tuskegee were complete facilities with ground personnel as well as civilian staff fulfilling non flying duties. Maycie Harrington, a civilian employee at the base hospital, married cadet Arron Harrington. She remains an active member of the Los Angeles chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen, Inc. The famous singer Lena Horne visited the airmen at Tuskegee. The Tuskegee Airmen Archive at the University of California Riverside has an enlarged photo of Ms. Horne with several of the airmen, including Celes King III, who may have met the singer when she stayed in the Dunbar Hotel in Los Angeles, which his uncle managed.
Planes from various units were identified by unique markings. The 332nd were clearly identified by the solid red paint on the tail assembly and the Tuskegee Airmen came to be known as The Redtails.
Tuskegee Airmen pose for a group shot in front of a P-40 aircraft
(From the Tuskegee Airmen collection)
The 99th FS (the FS, Fighter Squadron, replaced the PS, Pursuit Squadron, designation) was the first to be assigned to combat and did not become part of the 332nd FG until July 1944, joining the Group at Ramitelli, Italy. Arriving in North Africa in April 1943, they soon began training in their new P-40 aircraft. The unit participated in the air assault on the Italian island of Pantelleria. When the island surrendered in June, it marked the first time in history air power alone had completely destroyed all enemy resistance.
"Destroyer Attack" by Robert Bailey; Tuskegee P-47 Thunderbolts attack and sink a
German destroyer in the Adriatic Sea off the coast of Italy on June 26, 1944
(from the Mitchell Higginbotham papers)
In June 1944, two pilots from the 332nd Fighter Group , flying P-47s, disabled a German destroyer in the harbor at Trieste, Italy. By the end of World War II, the 99th FS had been awarded two Presidential Unit Citations and the 332nd received one for its longest bomber escort mission to Berlin in March 1945. The unit was also responsible for destroying three German ME-262 jet fighters and damaging an addition five jets.
Citations for individual Tuskegee Airmen include one Silver Star, 150 Flying Crosses, Legion of Merits and Red Star of Yugoslavia, and 66 of their comrades were buried in foreign soil.
In 1995 Laurence Fishburne, Malcolm-Jamal Warner, and Cuba Gooding, Jr stared in the award winning HBO production The Tuskegee Airmen. The film won both a Peabody Award and an Emmy. It was based upon the story of the 99th PS.
Real leaders of the various units in the 332nd included Colonel Benjamin O. Davis, Jr, a graduate of West Point who was a member of the first class at Moton Field and served as the commanding officer of the 99th . His father, also a West Point graduate and a General, had been a member of the famous Buffalo Soldiers. Benjamin O. Davis, Jr became the first African American General in the United States Air Force.
General Benjamin O. Davis from the Tuskegee Airmen
trading card set produced by MINT CARDS
(from the Maycie Herrington papers)
Col. Benjamin O. Davis, Jr would later serve as commander of the 332nd Fighter Group which would include the 99th, 100th, 301st and 302nd Fighter Squadrons. He was also called upon to command the 477th Bombardment Group. This was an all African American group training on the B-25 medium bomber. The war ended before the group was assigned a combat role.
Members of the 477th, however, played a significant role in race relations within the United States Army Air Force. Officers and enlisted personnel of the 477th, some of whom were veterans of combat in the Mediterranean Theater of Operations, felt they were the victims of discrimination. They had been part of units and bases which were usually segregated and when assigned to bases which included both African American and white personnel, they were usually provided with separate facilities.
The 477th had been stationed at Godman Field, adjacent to Fort Knox. Godman, which was for African American troops, proved to be inadequate to accommodate the new unit and its support personnel. The unit was transferred to Freeman Field, a USAAF facility in Indiana. The officers knew that USAAF regulations provided that all officers be granted access to any Officers Club on any base. However, they were specifically denied access to the white officers club at Freeman Field and were to be provided with a refurbished non commissioned officers club for their use alone. While this was a violation of the USAAF policy, it was the policy of the base commander and his superiors.
Several officers of the 477th entered the white Officers Club, in defiance of the base commander's order prohibiting their entry. New regulations were prepared which effectively segregated the officers clubs and the officers of the 477th were instructed to sign that they had read and understood the regulation. They did not understand a regulation which was a direct violation of USAAF policy and refused to sign. This meant they refused a direct order of a superior officer and could be charged with mutiny.
101 officers of the unit were arrested and returned to Godman Field. They included Coleman Young, who would later serve 20 years as Detroit's first African American mayor, Oliver Goodall, and Roger C. “Bill” Terry. Lt Terry was the only member of the group to be found guilty in a military court martial. He was charged with pushing the Provost Marshall who had blocked his way into the Officers Club. Mr. Terry later served as National President of the Tuskegee Airmen, Inc and was not acquitted of his actions at Freeman Field until he received a resolution from the United States Air Force in 1995.
By the time the court martial took place, Col. Benjamin O. Davis, Jr had replaced the white officer in command of the 477th. Col. Davis remained in the military and became the first African American general in the United States Air Force. The Freeman Field incident is generally considered to have contributed to the desegregation of the armed forces which officially took place when President Truman issued Executive Order 9981 in 1948.
The Tuskegee training lasted for only a few short years. The flight program began in 1941 and the base was deactivated shortly after the war. The experience, however, stayed with the airmen long after the base closed. Several went on to some fame in later life. Percy Heath was a member of the famous Modern Jazz Quartet. Celes King III was a well known and respected civil rights leader in Southern California, serving as head of the California Congress of Racial Equality organization and was the first African American in California to become a General bonding Agent. He headed a very successful Bail Bond Agency in Los Angeles.
TUSKEGEE AIRMEN, INC.
Some of the Tuskegee Airmen have been recognized by having local chapters of the Tuskegee Airmen, Inc named in their honor. In California these chapters include those named for Buford Johnson, who served on the ground crew for the pilots, General B.O.Davis, William “Bill” Campbell, George S. “Spanky” Roberts, and Lee A. Archer, who later became Vice President of General Foods. Chapters in Florida honor General Daniel “Chappie” James, who became the first African American in the history of the United States military to attain four star full General rank, and Lt. General John D. Hopper, Jr, who served as Commandant of Cadets at the United States Air Force Academy.
The Tuskegee Airmen, Inc was established in 1972 and has over 50 chapters nationwide. While it naturally honors the accomplishments of those who trained and worked at Tuskegee during World War II, it also has a program to introduce young people to the world of aviation and science through the Young Eagles and TAI Youth Programs. The organization also provides scholarships for those who support TAI's goals and provides awards to deserving cadets in the Air Force ROTC program.
There were four squadrons of Tuskegee Airmen. The 99th Pursuit Squadron was the first to see action and was followed by the 100th PS, the 301st PS and the 302nd PS. The four squadrons made up the all African American 332nd Fighter Group.
Official logo of the Tuskegee Airmen, Inc.