Honor and Courage: Tuskegee Airmen Set The Stage For Racial Integration In The Military

The story of the Tuskegee Airmen is one of courage, persistence, and skill in the face of war and bigotry. Despite being unwelcome, unappreciated, and underestimated the Tuskegee Airmen became heroes of World War II downing more than 100 enemy planes and earning 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses.

In the 1920s and 30s young people everywhere were enamored by the thrill of aviation. For African Americans, the path to the cockpit would come with great obstacles. It was ridiculously held that African Americans did not possess the intelligence or skill to learn to fly and operate a sophisticated aircraft. As the U.S. Army Air Corp (AAC) needs grew and pilot training programs expanded, civil rights groups began to demand opportunities for African American service members to be trained as pilots. In September 1940, President Franklin D Roosevelt responded to activists and announced that the AAC would begin training black pilots.

At the time, the armed forces were racially segregated. An all African American base, in Tuskegee Alabama, was created and the 99th squadron was born. The program trained 1,000 pilots and almost 14,000 other air and ground operations staff. Although they were often tested in ways set for them to fail, the Tuskegee Airmen surpassed all expectations.

After a visit from Eleanor Roosevelt in April of 1941 the Tuskegee program took a great leap forward. She flew with the chief flight instructor, Charles Anderson, and was assured of the superb abilities of the Tuskegee Airmen. This ultimately led to their activation in the war.

The Tuskegee Airmen were first shipped out to North Africa and then Sicily where they flew missions in the P-40. Outmatched by their German opponents, the assigned commander of the 99th squadron complained about their combat performance. Benjamin Davis Jr., commander of the Tuskegee Airmen, had to defend his squadron in front of a war committee. Rather than be deactivated and sent home, the squadron was pushed forward in Italy where they fought alongside a white squadron, the 79th Fighter Group. The Tuskegee Airmen began to prove themselves in combat in 1944. They were attributed with shooting down 12 German fighters in two days. Soon after, other Tuskegee fighter squadrons moved up and were added to the 99th. They became the well known 332nd Fighter Group.

The 332nd began flying P-51 Mustangs and became legendary escorting bombers deep into enemy territory. They were identified by the red paint on the tail of their aircraft, and given the enduring nickname “Red Tails” or “Red Tail Angels”. In an interview with his local news in Sierra Madre California , B-24 Liberator Gunner Ken Anhalt, 90 years of age, shared how they always felt better seeing those red tails out there. They knew they had the best men at their side. He remembers that while other fighter squads would depart before entering the target zone and encountering anti-aircraft fire, the Tuskegee men would remain, keeping their bombers safe.

By the end of the war the Tuskegee Airmen had flown 15,000 individual sorties. They destroyed or damaged German aircraft in aerial combat and 237 on the ground. They also took out nearly 1,000 rail cars and transport vehicles, and a German destroyer.

The persistence and accomplishments of the Tuskegee Airmen ultimately led to the desegregation of the armed forces in 1948. Their story teaches us to remain vigilant against prejudice, have courage in the face of hate, and believe in yourself even with the slimmest odds for success.