1. WHO ARE THE TUSKEGEE AIRMEN?
In general, the term “Tuskegee Airmen” has been used to refer to the all-black United States (U.S.) Army Air Corps combat pilots who received flight training at Moton Field, Tuskegee Institute, during World War II (WWII). However, the term includes all the men and women, civilian and military, administrative and technical support staff without whom the airmen would not have been combat-ready or successful. These individuals are known as Document Original Tuskegee Airmen or DOTAs.
The name “Tuskegee Airmen” came into existence on May 15, 1955 with the publication of “The Tuskegee Airmen--The Story of the Negro in the U.S. Air Force” by Charles E. Francis. Prior to that date, they were known as the “Red Tails.”
2. HOW DID THEY BECOME TUSKEGEE AIRMEN?
This “Experiment”, now the Tuskegee Experience, was a U.S. Government War Department program designed to address the 1925 War College Study report, which concluded that Blacks were incapable of flying in combat. Pressure from various civil rights groups seeking more meaningful and technical opportunities for blacks in the military services was brought on the War Department to train Blacks to fly. Mostly college-educated, these men volunteered for aviation cadet training. Initially only pilots were trained at Tuskegee. Later, individuals also received training as pilots, navigators, or bombardiers. Early in the program, requirements included being a male and passing numerous entry exams. Those candidates who demonstrated proficiency during flight training and who were not “washed” out under discriminatory practices, earned a commission as a second lieutenant in the United States Army Air Corps and earned their pilot wings. Women were not accepted as cadet candidates.
3. WHY DID PEOPLE WANT THE EXPERIMENT TO FAIL?
Blacks had been deemed unsuitable for maintaining or flying aircraft in a combat zone. In 1925 the War Department, now known as the Department of Defense, issued the results of a study that they conducted to support those beliefs. The view was widely held by numerous general officers in the War Department and civilians in the U.S. Government and combat flight training for Blacks had been prohibited.
After much prodding and pushing from Black newspapers, politicians, the public, the U.S. government, and War Department decided to create the Tuskegee Airmen Flight Training program. If the program failed, whites would not have to accept the proficiency of blacks when it came to technical duties under combat or any other positions in the military. Failure of the program would relieve white enlisted service members from the requirement to take orders from newly commissioned Black Officers.
4. WHERE DID TUSKEGEE AIRMEN COME FROM?
Male pilot candidates and support staff came from all over the U.S. All answered the call to defend their country.
5. WHY DID TUSKEGEE AIRMEN FLY FOR A COUNTRY THAT DISCRIMINATED AGAINST THEM?
The United States was at war in a global conflict against the Axis Powers (Germany, Japan and Italy). Despite their harsh treatment, the Black Airmen felt it was their duty to defend their country.
6. WHAT WAS THE DOUBLE V?
The “DOUBLE V” campaign stood for victory overseas against Hitler and the Third Reich and racism and discrimination in the United States. The Tuskegee Airmen felt that they were fighting a war on two fronts, one in Europe against Germany and at home against “Jim Crow” discrimination and injustice.
TRAINING THE TUSKEGEE AIRMEN
7. HOW WAS LIFE WHILE TRAINING IN AMERICA?
Primary Aviation training occurred at Moton Field, located in Tuskegee, Alabama, adjacent to the Historically Black College and University (HBCU) campus of Tuskegee Institute. Additional training occurred at bases in New Jersey, Illinois, and Michigan. Life on the bases mimicked life in America at the time. Discrimination was rampant both on and around the bases. While there was a sense that there was a “quota” which resulted in competent cadets being washed out, the Black cadets and officers formed strong bonds which strengthened their resolve to be successful.
Conditions were poor at the bases where they were stationed. For example, there was no pool available for Blacks at Moton Field and the segregated Post Exchange for Black aviators and support staff was poorly supplied. Accommodations for married officers were in short supply.
8. WERE THERE MORALE PROBLEMS?
There was concern among Black personnel that the aviation candidates did not always get a fair opportunity from their White training officers. This, more than anything, strengthened the bond among the Blacks going through the training program.
At Tuskegee, Lt. Colonel Noel F. Parish, the White Commander of the base was said to have given his word that he would be fair. By most accounts he lived up to his word.
9. WHAT WERE RELATIONS LIKE WITH THE WHITE OFFICERS?
Some White training officers treated the airmen harshly and unfairly, while others treated them with some semblance of dignity and respect.
THE TUSKEGEE AIRMEN FLY
10. WHY ARE TUSKEGEE AIRMEN CALLED RED TAILS?
This was the name given these airmen during WWII. All units painted their planes with identifying colors. The tails of the Tuskegee Airmen’s fighter planes were painted red for identification purposes earning them the enduring name “Red Tails”. The paint colors helped identify and distinguish friendly aircraft from enemy aircraft.
11. WHICH PLANES DID THE TUSKEGEE AIRMEN FLY?
The Tuskegee Airmen flew four different types of aircraft in combat: the P-40, P-39, P-47, and the P-51:
P-39, Airacobra, A Patrol and attack plane
P-40 WARHAWK, also a patrol and attack plane.
The P 47 Thunderbolt carried two 50 caliber machine guns under the wings and one 30 caliber gun under the nose. This plane primarily flew bomber escort missions.
The P-51 is a single engine fighter. It was designed to carry six 50 caliber machine guns and could carry a load of 2,000 pounds of bombs or ten 5-inch rockets. The military modified the armament to meet its needs. The P-51 Mustang flew escort missions.
12. WHERE DID TUSKEGEE AIRMEN PILOTS FLY?
The 99th Pursuit Squadron began flying in North Africa in 1943. Later bases for the 332d were strategically located throughout Italy. Ramitelli is a notable Italian base from which missions flew into Greece, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Hungary, Germany, Vienna and Poland.
13. WHAT GROUPS OR SQUADRONS DID THE TUSKEGEE AIRMEN BELONG TO?
The 332d Fighter Group was joined by the former 99th Pursuit (fighter) squadron, as well as the 100th, 301st, and 302nd Fighter Squadrons.
The 99th Pursuit Squadron, later the 99th Fighter Group, officially activated on March 19, 1941. The 100th Fighter Squadron officially activated on February 19, 1942. The 332nd Fighter Group officially activated on Oct. 13, 1942, at Tuskegee Army Air Field. The group consisted of the 301st Fighter squadron under Lt. Charles DeBow; the 302nd Fighter Squadron under Lt. William T. Mattison and the 100th Fighter under Lt. George Knox. (The 100th Fighter Squadron was initially commanded by Lt. Mac Ross until his appointment as the group’s operations officer.)
Tuskegee also graduated a group of twin-engine pilots who were assigned to the 477th Bombardment Group and flew the B-25 Billy Mitchell, a twin engine-medium bomber. The group was activated with four squadrons: The 616th, 617th, 618th and the 619th Squadrons, however, the war against Japan ended before the 477th Group could be deployed overseas during WWII.
14. WHEN DID TUSKEGEE AIRMEN PILOTS FLY?
The Tuskegee Airmen flew between 1941 and 1946. The first aviation class began July 19, 1941, with ground school training at Tuskegee Institute in subjects such as meteorology, navigation, and instruments. Successful cadets then transferred to the segregated Tuskegee Army Air Field (TAAF) to complete the Army Air Corps pilot training. The Air Corps provided aircraft, textbooks, flying clothes, parachutes, and mechanic suits, while the Tuskegee Institute provided the facilities for the aircraft and personnel. Lt. Col. Noel F. Parrish served as the base commander from 1942-46.
In March 1942, five of the 13 cadets in the first class completed the Army Air Corps pilot training program, earned their silver wings and became the nation’s first black military pilots. By the end of February 1944, the all- Black 332nd was overseas flying missions. The Tuskegee Airmen flew their last combat mission on April 26, 1945.
15. HOW MANY TUSKEGEE AIRMEN PILOTS WERE COMMISSIONED
A total of 2,483 persons were pilot trainees at Moton Field and Tuskegee Army Air Field (AAF), located in Tuskegee, AL, from July 19, 1941 until June 28, 1946. Approximately 997 Black fighter pilots trained and received commissions. Of those, approximately 495 deployed to bases in the European theater of war. The Tuskegee Airmen did not deploy to the Japanese theater of war.
16. HOW MANY TUSKEGEE AIRMEN PILOTS ARE STILL LIVING?
Sadly, the passage of time means that most of these pilots and support staff have passed away. Those still among us are now in their late 80s or older. We honor and treasure the few remaining individuals of this elite group of men and women.
17. HOW WAS LIFE FOR THE PILOTS OVERSEAS?
Life overseas was very similar to life in the United States when it came to interactions and relations with White soldiers; it was a segregated military in all aspects and racism was prevalent. Racism, combined with the realities of life in the war zone meant life overseas was sometimes even more difficult.
THE TUSKEGEE AIRMEN RECORDS
18. HOW MANY COMBAT MISSIONS DID TUSKEGEE AIRMEN PILOTS FLY DURING WWII?
The Tuskegee Airmen flew 1,578 total missions, including 200 bomber escort and reconnaissance escort missions. Under the 12th Air Force, the Tuskegee Airmen flew more than 1200 missions for the 99th, 100th, 301st, and 302nd Fighter Squadrons. Under the 15th Air Force, the 332d Fighter Group flew at least 311 missions between June 1944 and May 1945. The 99th Fighter Squadron and the 332d Fighter Group had a total of 112 aerial victories during World War II.
19. DID THE TUSKEGEE AIRMEN EARN ANY MEDALS, AWARDS, CITATIONS?
The Tuskegee Airmen earned numerous medals, awards, and citations including:
THREE PRESIDENTIAL UNIT CITATIONS -Awarded for extraordinary heroism in action against an armed enemy. The 99th Fighter Squadron earned two Distinguished Unit Citations, and the 332d Fighter Group earned one after the 99th Fighter Squadron was assigned to it.
ONE LEGION OF MERIT – Awarded for exceptionally meritorious conduct performing outstanding services and achievements.
ONE SILVER STAR - Awarded for gallantry against an enemy.
96 DISTINGUISHED FLYING CROSSES – Awarded for heroism or extraordinary achievement while participating in aerial flight. Both heroism and achievement must be entirely distinctive, involving operations that are not routine.
744 AIR MEDALS - Awarded for meritorious achievement while participating in aerial flight
EIGHT PURPLE HEARTS – Awarded in the name of the President of the United States for those wounded or killed while serving
CONGRESSIONAL GOLD MEDAL IN 2007 – Highest civilian honor awarded to the Collective Tuskegee Airmen for their unique military record, which inspired the reform and desegregation of the armed forces.
20. HOW SUCCESSFUL WERE THE TUSKEGEE AIRMEN’S MISSIONS?
Over 400 enemy aircraft were destroyed or damaged. In addition, over 900 ground transportation units, including trucks and trains were destroyed or damaged, along with 40 boats/barges and a German torpedo boat. The number of planes lost while escorted by the Tuskegee Airmen was significantly lower than that of white escort squadrons.
21. HOW MANY TUSKEGEE AIRMEN WERE LOST OR MISSING?
A. A total of 66 pilots were lost or killed during training and combat
B. 84 Tuskegee Airmen were killed overseas
C. 32 were prisoners of war
D. 27 remained missing in action (MIA). Captain Lawrence Dickson’s plane suffered engine trouble and went down during a mission in December 1944. In 2018, Captain Dickson’s remains were located and retrieved by the military outside the town of Hohenthurn, Austria. Captain Dickson’s remains were repatriated, and he was buried in Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors in March of 2019. To date, Captain Dickson is the only Tuskegee Airmen whose remains were recovered
22. WHAT ARE NOTABLE ACCOMPLISHMENTS OF THE TUSKEGEE AIRMEN?
A. NOTABLE OFFICERS INCLUDE:
General Benjamin O. Davis, the Tuskegee Airmen Commander became the first Black Brigadier General in the United States Air Force. He was advanced to Four Star General by then President William J. Clinton.
General Daniel “Chappie” James instructed Black pilots during WWII and in 1975, became the first Black Four-Star General in the United States Air Force.
Major General Lucius Theus was the first and only Mission Support Officer promoted to General and became the third black Air Force General.
Colonel George “Spanky” Roberts became the first black commander of a racially integrated Air Force unit.
Brigadier General Charles McGee was promoted to Brigadier General under then President Donald Trump.
B. NOTABLE COMBAT RECORDS INCLUDE:
Four Tuskegee Airmen earned three aerial victory credits in one day (Joseph Elsberry, Clarence Lester, Lee Archer, and Harry Stewart).
After numerous years of struggle for recognition, it continues to be debated whether Lieut. Col. Lee “Buddy” Archer is the one and only Black Ace for having shot down five enemy aircraft in combat.
Captain Roscoe Brown, 2nd Lieutenant Charles Brantley and 1st Lieutenant Earl Lance each shot down a German jet over Berlin on March 24, 1945.
The 99th Fighter Squadron and the 332d Fighter Group had a total of 112 aerial victories during World War II.
23. WHAT HAPPENED TO TUSKEGEE AIRMEN PILOTS AFTER THE WAR?
Some remained in the service while others had enough points and decided to leave active duty. Despite their combat experience and military training, not one of the pilots was selected from an application pool or offered the opportunity to fly with any of the fledgling commercial airlines in the United States.
More specifically, after the war in Europe ended in 1945, the black airmen returned to the United States and faced continued racism and bigotry despite their outstanding war record. The Tuskegee program was expanded and became the center for black aviation, during World War II. Large numbers of black airmen elected to remain in the service, but because of segregation, their assignments were limited to the 332nd Fighter Group or the 477th Composite Group, and later to the 332nd Fighter Wing at Lockbourne Air Base. Opportunities for advancement and promotion were very limited and this affected morale. Nevertheless, black airmen continued to perform superbly.
During this period, many white units were undermanned and needed qualified people but were unable to get experienced black personnel because of the segregation policy. The newly formed United States Air Force began plans to integrate its units as early as 1947. In 1948, President Harry S. Truman enacted Executive Order Number 9981, which directed equality of treatment and opportunity to all in the United States Armed Forces. This order, in time, led to the end of racial segregation in the military forces. This was also the first step toward racial integration in the United States of America.
Benjamin O Davis, Jr., the Commander of the Tuskegee Airmen, remained in the Army Air Corps which eventually became the United States Air Force. He eventually became the first Black Brigadier General in the United States Air Force.
24. WERE THE TUSKEGEE AIRMEN TREATED AS WAR HEROS UPON THEIR RETURN?
No, the Tuskegee Airmen were not treated as war heroes. Most returned to the same discrimination that existed when they left. Upon return, they were directed to segregated lines off the transport ships in debarkation cities/areas like New York City and New Jersey.
25. DID THE TUSKEGEE AIRMEN ACCOMPLISH THE “DOUBLE V”?
While Hitler and the AXIS enemies were defeated, the battle for equality in jobs, housing, accommodations, the loan/financial industries and racial justice continues today.
26. HOW HAS HISTORY TREATED THE TUSKEGEE AIRMEN?
For many years, the Airmen, their stories, and their accomplishments were ignored by the mainstream press, history and the military. For example, black newspapers and magazines such as the Chicago Defender and the Pittsburgh Courier carried stories of their experiences and achievements, while other mainstream papers did not.
Until 2005, the first ever trophy for the winners of the Continental Gunnery Meet in 1949 (Top Gun Meet) was “lost” in an Air Force Museum storage room. A four-man team of Tuskegee Airmen won the meet, yet paperwork lists the winners as unknown. The trophy was put on display at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio.
The Tuskegee Airmen Team which won the meet in their class consisted of then Captain Alva Temple, and 1st Lts. James P. Harvey, Harry T. Stewart and Halbert Alexander. The team led start to finish. On January 11, 2022, Lt. Col. James P. Harvey (in person) and Col. Harry T. Stewart (via ZOOM) attended the ceremony at Nellis AFB honoring this major accomplishment and win. The Air Force unveiled a permanent plaque of the accomplishment which will remain a permanent display at the U.S. Air Force Weapons School, Nellis AFB.
In the individual competition, the Tuskegee Airman leading the competition ended up coming in second place when the rules were bent to provide a plane to a white competitor whose plane difficulties disqualified him from competition. Allowed to fly, he is the declared winner.
27. ARE THERE ANY MOVIES ABOUT THE TUSKEGEE AIRMEN?
Hollywood made several movies – The Tuskegee Airmen (1995) and Redtails (2010). In addition, there is a Lucas Film production called Double Victory (2020) and a piece for the History Chanel, Tuskegee Airmen, Legacy of Color (2020) by Robin Roberts of ABC’s Good Morning America.
In addition to movies, there are videos capturing airmen in their own words (video recordings). These can be found on-line at sites such as, The Smithsonian Institute Air and Space Museum, various dedicated research libraries and institutions of higher learning, the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site and the Tuskegee National Museum, National Archives, College Park, MD, many state and local historical societies and museums, various war museums and the Experimental Aircraft Association.
28. BLACK WOMEN AT TUSKEGEE AND FEMALE PIONEERS IN AVIATION
A. During WWII, women could not be air cadets in the Tuskegee Flight Experiment. However, black women had a rich history in the field of aviation.
Most closely related to Tuskegee was Mildred Hemmons Carter (1921—2011) who earned her BA in business from Tuskegee when she was only 19, where she also learned to fly from head flight instructor Chief Anderson. Mildred graduated with the first class of the Civilian Pilot Training Program earning her private pilot’s license in 1941.
Due to the war and her gender, Mildred could not get training to fly more advanced military airplanes. However, she was the first civilian hired by the Army Air Corps. Integral to the success of the Tuskegee program, Mildred bulldozed trees off the site of the airstrip, created documents to equip the base, rigged parachutes and performed various administrative duties at Tuskegee Army Airfield throughout the war.
Mildred applied to be a WASP, one of the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots who delivered planes during WWII. Though qualified and rejected due to her race, Mildred later served as a mentor to other African American women pilots. Mildred continued to fly into her sixties and seventies. Mildred Carter was designated a WASP for her services. Additionally, she is a DOTA.
B. Willa Brown (1906—1992) was a high-school teacher by age 21 and started flight lessons at Aeronautical University in Chicago in 1934. Over the next few years Willa became a certified master mechanic, earned an MBA from Northwestern University, and became the first African American woman to receive a private pilot’s lesson in the United States. She and her husband Cornelius Coffey opened the Coffey School of Aeronautics near Chicago where they trained pilots for the Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP). Students from their school went on to the Army Air Force program at Tuskegee as both cadets and pilot instructors. Willa Brown was responsible for the early training of over 200 future Tuskegee Airmen and was an advocate for inclusion of African American pilots in the CPTP and the armed forces.
C. Another notable Black female in the field of aviation is Bessie Coleman (1892 -1926) who was unable to obtain a pilot’s license in America, so she learned French. Bessie traveled to France in 1921 where in seven months, she earned her pilot’s license. Bessie returned to America where she performed aerial stunts at air shows throughout America. She died while practicing stunts for an air show in 1926.