The Tuskegee Airmen--Unwanted Heroes
Despite military segregation, Tuskegee Airmen became some of the biggest heroes of the war. The War Department fought against their inclusion into a flight training program during World War II. Learn more about them.
The War Department didn't want them and fought against including them in any flight training program during World War II. When they were finally allowed to join the military, the Tuskegee Airmen were segregated from other pilots because they were black.
Yet among the 926 black men who were trained at Tuskegee, Alabama, came some of the biggest heroes of the war. They may have been the only bomber escort pilots in the war to never lose a bomber. A total of 66 of them were killed and 32 became prisoners-of-war, but most Americans didn't know about the heroics.
Their missions weren't made known to the whole general public--only the black public. Even many of the white pilots who said the "Red Tail Angels," the nickname for the 99th fighter squadron trained at Tuskegee, were the best escorts, didn't know their escorts were black.
They flew 1,576 missions, 15,553 combat sorties, destroyed 111 enemy aircraft. They also damaged 15 enemy airplanes and damaged hundreds of ships, factories, locomotives and other surface vehicles.
Yet they almost didn't get to fight. In 1925 a secret study by the War Department determined blacks would be unable to be pilots and were cowardly. The study did envision a role for the black man in war--as cooks or in other menial jobs. After the start of the war many blacks who did try to enroll in flight training were rejected.
It was only after first lady Eleanor Roosevelt flew with a black pilot and a Howard University student sued the War Department the President Roosevelt ordered the training of black pilots.
Tuskegee, Alabama, was chosen as the site for the training. Many army officials believed the "Tuskegee Experiment" would fail and the early War Department study would be proven correct. Those in charge looked for any reason to expel the pilots in training. They would give a pink slip for any error they believed serious enough and expelled anyone who got three. Some of the Tuskegee Airmen later said it was a way to expell qualified persons.
Charles Anderson, a self-taught pilot, who along with a friend, became one of the first two blacks to fly coast-to-coast across the United States, was put in charge of basic flight training. Whites gave more advanced training. It was Anderson who gave Eleanor Roosevelt a flight in his plane.
Benjamin O. Davis, one of two blacks in the century to graduate from West Point was put in charge of the program. At the academy he had no roommate and bunked with nobody in the field. When he went to dance classes he had to dance alone. He had an assigned seat the rest of the week but on Sunday morning, he had to ask permission of the ranking soldier at each table to eat at the table. A victim of racisim himself, he wouldn't tolerate defeat from those he trained.
Even after being trained, the Tuskegee Airmen had to wait another year before being allowed to go into battle. They were kept separate from other pilots and had to have black mechanics, black doctors and black air traffic controllers.
Those who opposed them even spread false rumors about members of the 99th running from battle. None of the people who spread the rumors even watched the 99th in battle. Benjamin Davis had to fight before Congress to allow the pilots to continue.
Members of the 99th, which became the 332 fighter group, earned 95 Distinguised Flying Crosses, 2 Soldier Medals, 14 Bronze Stars, 8 Purple Hearts and 744 Air Medals with Oak Leaf Clusters. Yet the airmen came home to a country still segregated. It was only in 1948 that President Harry Truman ordered the desegregation of the military.
The Tuskegee Airmen may have been unwanted, but they proved their critics wrong. Before their entrance into the war American bombers sufferred huge loses. Who knows how the war by air might have gone if not for the "Red Tail Angels?"