Seventy-seven years ago, the first Tuskegee Airmen got their wings.
The Airmen’s path to that moment was a long one, beginning when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Public Law 18 in 1939. The law expanded the Army Air Corps, the precursor to the US Air Force, and authorized the establishment of training programs for African-American pilots.
The War Department ordered the establishment of the 99th Pursuit Squadron in 1941. The pilots were trained in Tuskegee, Alabama, in partnership with Tuskegee University, which had an existing civilian flight training program. The National Park Service notes that the program trained and utilized more than pilots. Technicians, control tower operators and other support positions were just as critical to success, and some of those roles were occupied by women.
One very famous woman supported the Airmen in a different way. Just a week after the squadron’s creation, first lady Eleanor Roosevelt took flight with Charles Anderson, the Tuskegee Institute’s chief instructor pilot. Roosevelt’s ride brought the Institute’s flight training successes to a new level of public awareness.
During WWII, the Airmen served in North Africa and Italy. During the war, the Tuskegee Airmen earned another famous nickname: “Red Tails.” While flying with the 332nd Fighter Group, they painted the tails of their planes red.
Almost 1,000 pilots joined those original five by completing their training at Tuskegee.
According to the Air Force Academy, the Tuskegee Airmen were responsible for destroying more than 200 enemy aircraft and dozens of boats. They earned a Silver Star, 96 Distinguished Flying Crosses, 14 Bronze Stars, 744 Air Medals and eight Purple Hearts. Sixty-six of these pilots died in combat and 32 were prisoners of war.
Despite their history making and contributions to the Allies’ victory in WWII, the US armed forces remained segregated after the war. It was an injustice that President George W. Bush acknowledged when helping present the Tuskegee Airmen the Congressional Gold Medal in 2007.
“It was different for the men in this room. When America entered World War II, it might have been easy for them to do little for our country. After all, the country didn’t do much for them. Even the Nazis asked why African-American men would fight for a country that treated them so unfairly. Yet the Tuskegee Airmen were eager to join up,” Bush said. “I thank you for the honor you have brought to our country.”
In 1948, President Harry Truman signed Executive Order 9981 and began integration of the armed forces. Benjamin O. Davis Jr. – one of those first five pilots in 1942 – became the Air Force’s first African-American general.