Their legacy is one of courage in the face of a variety of adversaries—fierce anti-aircraft artillery fire, swarms of enemy fighters, some of the worst weather in Europe and constant derision and discrimination from many of their own comrades in arms during World War II.
The Tuskegee Airmen consisted of approximately 1,000 pilots trained at Tuskegee Army Air Field in Tuskegee, Ala., between 1941 and 1946, and they were all black. At the time, the myth was that black men couldn’t be trained as pilots. Some military officials and the government itself apparently felt black men weren’t brave enough to fight or smart enough to fly. Many white officers did everything possible to block any attempt by blacks to fight for their country in other than foot-soldier roles.
As depicted in the 1995 HBO movie The Tuskegee Airmen
, training black pilots wasn’t a popular subject in the early 1940s, despite strong support from a Missouri senator named Harry S. Truman and his more enlightened colleagues. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt also helped publicize the problem by insisting on flying with a black Tuskegee instructor in 1940.
Many of the pilots who prevailed and made it through the training course, however, were eventually assigned to fly Curtiss P-40 Warhawks, Bell P-38 Aircobras, Republic P-47 Thunderbolts and North American P-51 Mustangs initially on ground-pounding duties against Rommel in North Africa and later in bomber-escort missions over southern Europe.
In some 200 escort assignments over Europe, the 332nd Fighter Group, comprised exclusively of African-American pilots, never lost a bomber to enemy fighters, the only fighter group to boast that record. Sadly, such a distinction was not without price. Some 66 Tuskegee Airmen lost their lives in aerial combat, and another 32 were shot down and wound up in POW camps.
The Red-Tailed Angels, as they came to be known, flew fighters with crimson tails and were so tenacious in their defense of the bombers, some German units were seen to shy away when they recognized the airplanes. Word spread quickly of the 332nd’s record, and some bomber groups actually requested escort by the all-black fighter squadrons.
Based primarily in Anzio and Ramitelli, Italy, the Tuskegee Airmen flew a total of almost 1,600 missions during the war, accounted for some 260 enemy aircraft destroyed (including three ME-262 jet fighters), earned over 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses and other medals, plus two Presidential Unit Citations. Members of the 332nd also blew up a German destroyer in the harbor at Trieste, Italy, with nothing more than 50-caliber machine gunfire.
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