By Master Sgt. Mark Olsen, 177th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
/ Published February 09, 2012
EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP, NJ -- Prior to World War II, the situation for African-American military aviators was grim.
The Army Air Corps had completely barred blacks from their ranks and the other services had assigned blacks only the most menial of duties. Their reasoning was based on an Army War College study, which stated that blacks, by nature, were physically, mentally and psychologically unfit for combat duty.
Civil rights organizations and the black press exerted pressure that, combined with congressional legislation, resulted in the formation of 99th Fighter Squadron based at the Tuskegee Institute in June 1941. The graduates of that program would become known as the Tuskegee Airmen.
Class 42C, the first Tuskegee class, began training on July 19, 1941 and included 12 cadets and one student officer Capt. Benjamin O. Davis Jr.
In 1936, Davis was the first African American to graduate from West Point Military Academy in 47 years and only the fourth to ever graduate from the institute. Davis served as an aide to his father, Brig. Gen. Benjamin O. Davis Sr., at Fort Benning, Ga., before transferring to Tuskegee. He would later retire as an Air Force Lieutenant General, the Air Force's first black general and the nation's second African American general officer.
After completing basic training at nearby Moton Field, the Airmen were sent to the segregated Tuskegee Army Air Field to complete their pilot training.
Class 42C earned their wings becoming the nation's first black military pilots in March 1942. Between 1941 and 1945, Tuskegee trained 994 aviators for the war effort, 445 would be deployed, 66 were killed in action and 32 were shot down and became prisoners of war.
Despite all the training, the unit did not receive their deployment orders. After months of delays by the War Department the 400 Airmen of the 99th Fighter Squadron was deployed to North Africa in April 1943. The 99th became part of the 332nd Fighter Group, which was comprised of the 100th, 301st, and 302nd African-American Fighter Squadrons based in Italy. The 332nd was initially based at Montecorvino Air Base near Salerno, Italy and then moved to Capodichino Air Field and finally to Ramitelli Air Field near Ancona, where, under Davis' command flew missions over Sicily, the Mediterranean and North Africa.
American bomber crews nicknamed the 332nd the Red Tails or Red Tail Angels after the distinctive red tail markings on the vertical stabilizers of the unit's fighters. The Luftwaffe called the Tuskegee Airmen "Die Schwarze Vogelmenschen", literally the Black Birdmen.
On March 24, 1945, Lt. Col. Davis led the 332nd on a 1,600-mile mission to Berlin where they escorted B-17 bombers whose mission was to level the Daimler-Benz tank works. The 332nd was supposed to be relieved by another fighter unit prior to arriving at the target, so when the relieving unit didn't show up, the 332nd continued the mission and went on to shoot down numerous enemy fighters including three German Me-262 jet fighters. As a result, the 332nd was awarded a Distinguished Unit Citation for "outstanding performance and extraordinary heroism" for the mission.
By war's end, the 332nd completed 15,553 sorties, 1,578 missions, destroyed or damaged 409 enemy aircraft, sank one enemy destroyer, and destroyed numerous enemy installations. The Tuskegee Airmen's awards included two Distinguished Unit Citations, 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses, several Silver Stars, eight Purple Hearts, 14 Bronze Stars, 744 Air Medals, the Croix de Guerre and the Red Star of Yugoslavia.
In 2005, Tuskegee Airmen Lt. Cols. Lee Archer and Robert Ashby, along with Master Sgt. James Sheppard, and Tech. Sgt. George Watson flew to Balad, Iraq, to speak to active duty Airmen serving in the 332nd serving with the 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing.
During a ceremony at the air base, Lt. Gen. Walter E. Buchanan III, Commander of the Ninth Air Force and U.S. Central Command Air Forces, said that: "This group represents the linkage between the greatest generation of Airmen and the latest generation of Airmen."
The Tuskegee Airmen overcame prejudice and helped pave the way for President Harry S. Truman's Executive Order 9981, which mandated "equality of treatment and opportunity" for all members of the armed forces in July 1948.