When World War II began in 1939, African Americans were no strangers to military service. For hundreds of years blacks had risked their lives in conflicts such as the American Revolutionary War and the Civil War. In 1941, African Americans seized the opportunity to exhibit their patriotism in a new way: They trained at Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama to become the first blacks in the military to fly and manage aircraft. Before this groundbreaking shift, skilled training remained off limits to African Americans because military personnel doubted blacks had the intelligence and talent to excel in leadership roles. Prior to the 1940s, the military actually banned blacks from serving as pilots. The Tuskegee Airmen proved that African Americans were just as capable as any other group of taking on complex missions and succeeding.
Origins of the Tuskegee Airmen
Had civil rights groups such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People not swayed the War Department to train black servicemen in the U.S. Army Air Corps as pilots, flight instructors, navigators and more, African Americans may have been relegated to remedial roles in the armed forces for years to come. Then, the military was segregated and denying African Americans the chance to excel would have largely gone unquestioned. Instead, from 1941 to 1946, nearly 1,000 blacks at the segregated Tuskegee Army Air Field received pilot training. Four squadrons made up the all-black, 332nd Fighter Group: the 99th, the 100th, the 301st and the 302nd.
A Distinguished Group
The achievements of the Tuskegee Airmen are numerous. The Airmen boasted one of the lowest loss records in escorting bombers, according to Tuskegee University. Moreover, the 99th Squadron received Presidential Unit Citations in 1943 and 1944 for tactical air support and aerial combat. Also in 1944, two airmen found a German destroyer in Italy. The following year, the 332nd Fighter Group received the Presidential Unit Citation for its bomber escort mission in March to Berlin, Germany, where the Tuskegee Airmen wrecked a trio of German jet fighters and damaged a handful of others. By the time World War II ended, the Airmen had flown 1,578 missions and 15,533 sorties. To boot, they destroyed 261 enemy aircraft, and won more than 850 medals.
Discrimination on the Home Front
When the Tuskegee Airmen returned home after valiantly defending the United States in World War II, they encountered fierce discrimination. One of the airmen, Alexander Jefferson, recalled his return to the country during a 2011 NPR interview. “Coming back on the boat…got to New York Harbor, the flags waving, the Statue of Liberty,” he remembered. “Walked down the gangplank, and a little soldier at the bottom said, ‘Whites to the right, n---ers to the left.’”
Because racial discrimination remained a pressing issue in the U.S. after World War II ended, many black veterans began to press for equal rights without regard to color both in and outside of the military. In April 1948, civil rights supporters won a major victory when the Air Force decided to racially integrate. Three months later, President Harry Truman signed Executive Order 9981, which desegregated the entire armed forces.
Legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen
Fifty years after the Tuskegee Airmen fought heroically in World War II, President Bill Clinton approved legislation on Nov. 6, 1998 to create the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site at Moton Field in Tuskegee, Ala. The site includes a museum, national center and various programs in recognition of the Airmen’s heroism. Nine years later, another president honored the Airmen. In 2007, President George W. Bush awarded the Airmen the Congressional Gold Medal. In addition to these honors, the Airmen have been recognized in movies such as the 1995 film “The Tuskegee Airmen” and the 2012 film “Red Tails.”