World War II: Cadets in the U.S. Army’s first all-black air unit, the 99th pursuit squadron, better known as the Tuskegee Airmen. More than 600 black pilots were trained at the Tuskegee Institute, and a total 500,000 African Americans served overseas during the course of the war.
Under domestic pressure to expand the available roles for African-Americans in military service, the US Army established a new unit, the 99th Pursuit Squadron, for the training of African-Americans for flying duties. However, they - and the later 332nd Fighter Group and 477th Medium Bombardment Group - would forever be better remembered as the Tuskegee Airmen, after Tuskegee, Alabama where their training was conducted.
In the segregated US military of the time, the black fliers were forced to prove themselves constantly, and numerous officers in the Army were openly contemptuous of the project, hoping to see it fail. Despite such institutional barriers, the Tuskegee Airmen continually exceeded expectations, and justifiably earned a name for themselves as one of the best fighter groups in the US Army Air Force during World War II.
During their time in the war, the 332nd (the 477th was not deployed, still in training when the war ended) found themselves fighting in North Africa, and then Italy. The first squadron deployed, the 99th PS was armed with the P-40 Warhawk (top left), and later squadrons deployed with the P-39 Airacobra (top right) and P-47 Lightning (bottom left). But it was the P-51 which would be the mount of most of the Tuskegee Airmen once they began to be equipped with them in mid-1944, and the plane they are most associated with. Beginning with the issuance of the P-47s onwards, the Fighter Group painted their aircraft with the distinctive red job, giving them the nickname of “Red Tails”.
With the end of World War II, operations at Tuskegee Army Air Field continued, but with Executive Order 9981, signed by President Truman in 1948, the US military was to be integrated. The newly separate US Air Force was the first branch to fully integrate, in no small part due to the high quality pilots of the Tuskegee Airmen, and specifically the work of their commander, then Lt. Col. Davis, Jr., who assisted in drafting the plan for Air Force integration.
(Art by Jim Laurier; Photo from the Tuskegee Airmen Museum)
Today marks the 73rd Anniversary of the activation of the 99th Pursuit Squadron. The first fighter squadron comprised of and led by African American pilots and maintainers, also known as the Tuskegee Airmen. The program officially began in June 1941, with 47 officers and 429 enlisted men. The Squadron first flew the Curtiss P-40 Warhawk in North Africa, and eventually flew the P-51 supporting bombing missions into Europe. The 99th would be the first of 4 Fighter Squadrons and 3 medium bomber squadrons of the Tuskegee Airmen . Pioneering Aviators of their time many went on to become future leaders in what became the U.S. Air Force.
Members of the U.S. Army Air Corps’ legendary 99th Pursuit Squadron, the Tuskegee Airmen, receive instruction about wind currents from a lieutenant in 1942. The Tuskegee fliers - the nation’s first African American air squadron - served with distinction in the segregated American military.