Black History Month – Day 18 Spotlight: Tuskegee Airmen

The Tuskegee Airmen is the popular name of a group of African American pilots who fought in World War II. Formally, they were the 332nd Fighter Group and the 477th Bombardment Group of the U.S. Army Air Corps.

The Tuskegee Airmen were the first African American military aviators in the United States armed forces. During World War II, African Americans in many U.S. states still were subject to racist Jim Crow laws. The American military was racially segregated, as was much of the federal government. The Tuskegee Airmen were subject to racial discrimination, both within and outside the army.

Despite these adversities, they trained and flew with distinction. Although the 477th Bombardment Group “worked up” on North American B-25 Mitchell bombers, they never served in combat; the Tuskegee 332nd Fighter Group was the only operational unit, first sent overseas as part of Operation Torch, then in action in Sicily and Italy, before being deployed as bomber escorts in Europe where they were particularly successful in their missions.

The Tuskegee Airmen initially were equipped with Curtiss P-40 Warhawks fighter-bomber aircraft, briefly with Bell P-39 Airacobras (March 1944), later with Republic P-47 Thunderbolts (June–July 1944), and finally the fighter group acquired the aircraft with which they became most commonly associated, the North American P-51 Mustang (July 1944). When the pilots of the 332nd Fighter Group painted the tails of their P-47’s red, the nickname “Red Tails” was coined. Bomber crews applied a more effusive “Red-Tail Angels” sobriquet.

Before the Tuskegee Airmen, no African American had become a U.S. military pilot. In 1917, African-American men had tried to become aerial observers, but were rejected, however, African American Eugene Bullard served as one of the members of the Franco-American Lafayette Escadrille. Nonetheless, he was denied the opportunity to transfer to American military units as a pilot when the other American pilots in the unit were offered the chance. Instead, Bullard returned to infantry duty with the French.

The racially motivated rejections of World War I African-American recruits sparked over two decades of advocacy by African-Americans who wished to enlist and train as military aviators. The effort was led by such prominent civil rights leaders as Walter White of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, labor union leader A. Philip Randolph, and Judge William H. Hastie.

Finally, on 3 April 1939, Appropriations Bill Public Law 18 was passed by Congress containing an amendment designating funds for training African-American pilots. The War Department managed to deflect the monies into funding civilian flight schools willing to train black Americans.

War Department tradition and policy mandated the segregation of African-Americans into separate military units staffed by white officers, as had been done previously with the 9th Cavalry, 10th Cavalry, 24th Infantry Regiment and 25th Infantry Regiment. A further series of legislative moves by the United States Congress in 1941 forced the Army Air Corps to form an all-black combat unit, despite the War Department’s reluctance.

Due to the restrictive nature of selection policies, the situation did not seem promising for African-Americans since, in 1940, the U.S. Census Bureau reported only 124 African-American pilots in the nation. The exclusionary policies failed dramatically when the Air Corps received an abundance of applications from men who qualified, even under the restrictive requirements. Many of the applicants already had participated in the Civilian Pilot Training Program, in which the historically black Tuskegee Institute had participated since 1939.

The U.S. Army Air Corps had established the Psychological Research Unit 1 at Maxwell Army Air Field, Montgomery, Alabama, and other units around the country for aviation cadet training, which included the identification, selection, education, and training of pilots, navigators, and bombardiers. Psychologists employed in these research studies and training programs used some of the first standardized tests to quantify IQ, dexterity and leadership qualities to select and train the best-suited personnel for the roles of bombardier, navigator, and pilot. The Air Corps determined that the existing programs would be used for all units, including all-black units.

At Tuskegee, this effort continued with the selection and training of the Tuskegee Airmen. In an effort to subvert the unit before it could commence operations, the War Department set up a system to accept only those with a level of flight experience or higher education, criteria intended to exclude most applicants. The attempts to derail the unit by setting high standards of entry requirements, ensured that only the most able and intelligent were able to join, contributing to the ultimate success of the all-black combat flyers.

The budding flight program at Tuskegee received a publicity boost when First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt inspected it in March 1941, and subsequently flew with African-American chief civilian instructor C. Alfred “Chief” Anderson. Anderson, who had been flying since 1929, and was responsible for training thousands of rookie pilots, took his prestigious passenger on a half-hour flight in a Waco biplane. After landing, she cheerfully announced, “Well, you can fly all right.”

The subsequent brouhaha over the First Lady’s flight had such an impact it is often mistakenly cited as the start of the CPTP at Tuskegee, even though the program was already five months old. Eleanor Roosevelt did use her position as a trustee of the Julius Rosenwald Fund to arrange a loan of $175,000 to purchase the land for Moton Field.

For more detailed information about the Tuskegee Airmen, see TuskegeeAirmen.org.

[photos via]