Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site | TUSKEGEE AIRMEN HISTORY

Tuskegee Airmen

Tuskegee Airmen

From its inception in 1881 as the Normal School for Colored Teachers at Tuskegee under the leadership of prominent black spokesman and educator Booker T. Washington, Tuskegee Institute had been one of the top education facilities for blacks in the United States. It started out with a focus on agriculture and industrial studies, but eventually branched into engineering and aeronautics. Because of this, the federal government launched a division of the Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP) at Tuskegee in 1939. Five other historically black colleges were also involved in the program, giving black men their first chance at learning to become a pilot under government sponsorship.

The CPTP began in 1938 in response to similar German and Italian programs, which the United States government felt were military pilot training programs in disguise. Not to be left behind, the CPTP paid for ground school training and up to 50 hours of flight instruction at facilities all integrated into college and university campuses (eleven schools to start with). Once World War II began in September 1939, top CPTP graduates were quickly funneled into military training programs. In December 1940 the military had plans to take control of the program completely and suspend all private aviation, but this was blocked by Congress. Instead, the program was quickly expanded to include many more colleges and universities. After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and America entered the war, the CPTP became the War Training Service (WTS). Colleges involved in the CPTP continued to train student pilots, and those who passed training agreed to enter the military after graduation.

At the start of the CPTP at Tuskegee (1939), the school only provided ground training on campus, as it did not have its own air field. Flight training was conducted at Montgomery’s municipal airport and classes were taught by Joseph Allen, a white flight instructor. By early 1940, the school had leased and improved a small private airfield known as Kennedy Field, purchased a few of its own planes, and hired its own instructors. Kennedy Field was about five miles south of the school and had no paved runways, but it did have a few hangars. This is the airfield from which Eleanor Roosevelt took a flight with Tuskegee Institute instructor Charles Anderson on March 29, 1941, when she was at Tuskegee for the Julius Rosenwald Fund’s annual meeting that was being held on the campus. As a result of the publicity, the Rosenwald Fund, of which Mrs. Roosevelt was a board member, agreed to loan the school the money to build its own airfield. (Kennedy Field was abandoned in 1946 and no trace of it remains today.)

Despite many black pilots obtaining their pilot’s license from the CPTP, there were no blacks in military aviation. Because of this, the black press and the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) began a campaign to change things. The Selective Training and Service Act of 1940 prohibited racial discrimination for enlistments and training in all branches of the military. Since blacks were being kept from military aviation training, the NAACP initiated a lawsuit against the U. S. Army Air Corps (precursor to the the U. S. Air Force) claiming that the Selective Service Act was being violated. Furthermore, Public Law 18, passed in the spring of 1939, required the Army Air Corps to contract with the CPTPs to provide primary flight training for military pilots. As a result, the Army Air Corps began efforts to create a segregated air unit, and in June 1941, it contracted with Tuskegee Institute, already a member of the CPTP, to provide ground and primary flight training for black military pilots. The air unit would be called the 99th Pursuit Squadron.

To prepare for the training, Tuskegee Institute began construction of its own airfield on its own property and named it after Robert Moton, the school’s second president. Construction began in 1941, and the airfield was ready for use by that fall, though the official dedication of Moton Field wasn’t until 1943. Various buildings were constructed over the next few years as the program expanded.

Becoming a military pilot, black or white, was a multistage process. For the black men at Tuskegee, they were first tested at the Tuskegee Army Air Field (TAAF) to see if they would go into the pilot, bombardier, or navigator program. TAAF was a military-run air field a few miles from Moton Field. As with Kennedy Field, nothing remains from the Tuskegee Airmen era (though a private air field still exists on the property). The only remaining WWII structures associated with the Tuskegee Airmen are those at Moton Field.

After comprehensive testing at TAAF, all cadets went to ground school at Tuskegee Institute, living on campus and socializing with the rest of the students. Ground training was a nine week program. Pilots who passed ground training went on to a nine week primary flight training course at Moton Field that was taught by civilian pilots under supervision of the military. Bombardiers and navigators went back to TAAF. Once cadets finished primary flight training at Moton, they returned to TAAF for basic and then advanced training, both nine week programs. Those graduating would become commissioned 2nd Lieutenants or Flight Officers and would join their units. Bombardiers and navigators only had to pass one phase of specialized training at TAAF—a nine week course—before becoming officers and being assigned to a military unit.

Of course the mention of the Tuskegee Airmen brings to mind fighter pilots, but the Airmen were comprised of much more than pilots. All of those involved in the program are proudly considered Tuskegee Airmen, and this includes everyone from cooks to mechanics. Graduating pilots numbered around 1,000, but support personnel who were trained at Tuskegee and at Chanute Field in Illinois number well over 10,000. By the way, the term “Tuskegee Airmen” was not coined until 1955 by author Charles Francis for his book, The Tuskegee Airmen: The Men Who Changed a Nation. At the time, the program was referred to as the Tuskegee Experiment.

The first class of thirteen cadets came to Tuskegee Institute in July 1941. After ground school, primary flight training was held at Kennedy Field because the Moton airstrip would not be ready until later in the year. Of the thirteen, five made it through the program, earning their wings on March 7, 1942. One of the graduates was Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., who was already an Army Captain when he came to Tuskegee. He was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and put in charge of the 99th Pursuit Squadron (this would be renamed the 99th Fighter Squadron in May 1942).

With the war on, the need for military pilots increased, and efforts at Tuskegee were expanded. The War Department soon created a second segregated air unit, the 100th Pursuit Squadron (also renamed Fighter Squadron in May of 42). By the end of the year, the 301st and the 302nd had been formed. These three units were eventually organized into the 332nd Fighter Group, the very first group comprised of all black pilots. The 99th was added to the group in 1944.

Expansion of the Tuskegee training came with many problems. Overcrowding and a variety of training aircraft, some of which were not very good, began to dilute the program, and none of this escaped the eyes of the program’s critics. Many argued that segregation was hurting progress, and that the “Tuskegee Experiment” should be ended and the men sent into the general military population. The black community was also up in arms over the fact that none of the Tuskegee units were in combat. To remedy the situation, the 332nd Fighter Group was moved to Selfridge Field in Michigan (April 1943), and soon thereafter the 99th was sent into combat in North Africa. However, no sooner was the problem of overcrowding somewhat alleviated that the Army Air Forces (new name for the Air Corps by this time) decided to establish an all-black bomber unit, once again overtaxing the resources at Tuskegee. The bomber group would be the 477th Bombardment Group, but the unit never saw combat because the war ended before training was completed.

The first unit to see combat was the 99th, having been sent to North Africa in April of 1943. All of its early missions were ground assaults, and because of this the unit was criticized for not shooting down any enemy aircraft. On the verge of being disbanded, the unit was saved by a move to Sicily where the men could engage in air combat. In January 1944 they shot down 13 enemy aircraft over Anzio.

By the end of 1943, enough cadets had graduated from Tuskegee that the 101st, 301st, and the 302nd were ready for action. In February of 1944, the entire 332nd Fighter Group was sent to Italy. Initially in air combat roles, by June the Fighter Group began escorting bombers of the Fifteenth Air Force on missions over Germany. It was one of seven fighter groups assigned to the Fifteenth Air Force. In July 1944, the 99th became part of the 332nd and also began flying bomber escort missions.

Each fighter group distinguished itself by having its own tail markings. The 332nd painted the tails and wing tips red, earning them the nickname “Red Tails.” Per an interview with a surviving Tuskegee Airman, the decision to use red came about for no other reason than because the base had a lot of extra red paint lying around. However, another Airman, mechanic James Sheppard, claims the decision was mandated by General Nathan Twining, commander of the Fifteenth Air Force. All fighter groups were assigned tail marking to help distinguish them from one another.

Popular lore tells that no bombers escorted by the 332nd were ever shot down, but this is just a myth. It is true that the number of bombers shot down during the missions of the 332nd was about 40% less than the other fighter groups assigned to the Fifteenth. However, the other fighter groups shot down many more enemy aircraft than did the 332nd. This may be attributed to the theory that the 332nd stayed with the bombers as instructed instead of taking off to shoot down enemy aircraft, which was certainly the more exciting and glorious thing to do. With Army brass looking for any excuse the end the program, the black pilots had to be more diligent in following orders than their white counterparts who had less to lose.

By the end of the war the Tuskegee Airmen had earned 96 Distinguished Flying Crosses. They had shot down 112 enemy aircraft, though no one pilot shot down more than five, thus there were no “aces” in the group. They also took part in the longest bombing run by the Fifteenth, a nearly 1,600-mile round trip to Berlin and back. External gas tanks had been attached by ground crews the day before to allow the fighter planes to make the trip. During the mission, the Germans deployed newly designed jet planes, and the Tuskegee Airmen managed to shoot down three of them. For the effort, the 332nd earned a Distinguished Unit Citation. All told, the Airmen flew 1,578 missions, shot down 112 enemy aircraft, had 72 of their own pilots shot down, had 66 men killed in combat, 32 taken as POWs, and 13 missing in action (these numbers include all members the the black units, not just pilots).

Of course no short history of the Tuskegee Airmen would be complete without mention of the discrimination they faced to become military pilots and ground crew members. Even at Tuskegee, home of the all-black training program, they faced problems. While the cadets, crew, and many instructors were black, the high ranking officers in charge were white, as were administrators and even some of the crew and pilots, and not all of these officers followed military policy. For example, the second officer in charge, Colonel Frederick von Kimble, ran a segregated facility contrary to Army Regulation 210-10, which forbade the segregation of air base facilities. He was eventually removed and replaced by Major Noel Parrish, a very fair commander who believed every man should be judged on his own merits. Tuskegee Airmen always held Parrish in very high esteem.

Most of the discrimination came once the Tuskegee-based pilots and crews were sent to other airbases for additional training. Some skills were so specialized that segregated training was not possible, and, as mentioned earlier, the entire 332nd was transferred to Selfridge Field. Tuskegee Airmen were sent all over the country once their initial training at Moton and TAAF was completed. All air bases were commanded by white officers, and many of these men were die-hard racists who ran segregated facilities that were in complete violation of military laws. At best, the Airmen might be offered “separate but equal” facilities, but this was the rare exception.

The racial tensions finally escalated into what would become known as the Freeman Field Mutiny. The 477th Bombardment Squadron had been moved around from airbase to airbase, first to Selfridge Field, then to Godman Field, a dilapidated base in Fort Knox, Kentucky, and then finally to Freeman Field in Seymore, Indiana. Their commanding officer, a white Colonel named Robert Selway, made sure that each based was segregated. At Selfridge, the officers’ club was for whites only, and the movie theater had designated seating based on race. When the Airman complained to base commanding officer William Boyd, he too backed the segregated facilities. To calm matters, General Frank Hunter promised the men that a new club would be built for them, but they were transferred to Godman Field before the building was completed.

At Godman, Selway took on a secondary role as base commander. He ceded the officer’s club to the Airmen, but only because he and all the white officers planned on using the club at another base near Fort Knox. This angered the Airmen just as much.

Finally, in March of 1945, the 477th was transferred to Freeman Field. It didn’t take long for Selway to get into full swing. So as to not blatantly segregate the officers’ clubs by race, he designated all white officers as “trainers” and all black officers as “trainees,” then made a club for trainers and one for trainees. Over the course of many days, small groups of black officers attempted to enter the white officers’ club, with most being arrested. All told, around 60 arrests were made. Eventually, all charges were dropped except those against three black officers who supposedly shoved a white officer to get in the door.

In response to this, Selway drafted Base Regulation 85-2 that got around every loophole in Army Regulation 210-10. He then ordered all black airmen to sign the new regulation, stating they read and understood it. One hundred-and-one black officers refused to sign it, violating a direct order of a commanding officer during war. This was punishable by prison and even execution. The 101 men were arrested and sent to Godman Field to await trail, though all charges were eventually dropped. The 477th Bombardment Squadron was set to enter combat in July of 1945, but with all of the arrests, training was delayed and would not be completed until August, by which time the war had ended.

After the war ended, the Tuskegee program continued until 1949, shortly after President Harry Truman signed Executive Order 9981 and ended segregation in the military in 1948. By this time the U. S. Air Force had been created. Individual Airmen were reassigned to various units. The Air Force no longer kept personal files based on race.

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Last updated on February 21, 2020
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