Who Are The Tuskegee Airmen?
During a time when segregation was the societal standard, racism was widely practiced and Black Americans were widely discriminated against, the United States was in the shadow of Pearl Harbor and on the brink of World War II. At the same time, the U.S. was ranked the 16th largest military in the world and desperately needed pilots.
Due to the uncertainty of another world war coupled with a lack of military manpower, in 1939 the U.S. government created the Civilian Pilot Training Program, according to the Smithsonian Institute. This federally-funded and segregated program allowed Black Americans to train on combat aircraft and learn how to fly in case of another war. Black Americans were already allowed in the military, but they hadn’t been allowed to train as pilots yet.
Even as the CPT began training African American pilots, there were still many leaders within and outside of the military who didn’t think African Americans should serve. Many of these opinions stemmed from a survey conducted in 1925 by the Army War College, now called the Department of Defense, titled: The Employment of Negro Manpower In War.
“An opinion held in common by practically all officers is that the negro is a rank coward in the dark. His fear of the unknown and unseen will prevent him from ever operating as an individual scout with success. His lack of veracity causes unsatisfactory reports to be rendered, particular on patrol duty,” the report states.
The NAACP, Black media outlets and other Black organizations fought against the report and those negative opinions. They pressured the U.S. military relentlessly for inclusion, desegregation and fair treatment.
Then in January of 1941, under the direction of the NAACP, Howard University student Yancey Williams filed a lawsuit against the War Department to compel his admission to a pilot training center.
The military succumbed to this pressure and on January 16, 1941, Secretary of the Army Henry L. Stimson authorized the formation of a Black pursuit squadron, according to the Air Force Historical Support Division. This unit was to be called the 99th Pursuit Squadron.
It wasn’t until March 22, 1941 that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt officially activated the all-black World War II fighter squadron. This squadron activation was the first step in the Tuskegee Airmen Experiment.
This experiment, which was expected to fail by the U.S. Government, allowed Black Americans enlisted in the military to be, “tested to see if they could be trained as combat pilots and support personnel,” according to the Tuskegee historical site.
During this “experiment,” the airmen were required to meet the typical standards of the military, including having a college education as well as reach the same fitness goals set by the Army. Once enlisted, this group of Black American military members served and trained in Tuskegee, Alabama.
On July 19, 1941, 12 aviation cadets and one student officer, Captain Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., reported to Tuskegee Institute (Tuskegee University) to start flight training as the first Black pilot candidates in the U.S. Army. By November, four cadets and the student officer had passed and were transferred to Tuskegee Army Air Field for basic and advanced training.
On March 7, 1942, the first class of cadets graduated from Tuskegee Army Air Field to become the nation's first African American military pilots, now known as the Tuskegee Airmen.
Following this accomplishment, over 16,000 Tuskegee Airmen trained in Alabama. Approximately 996 of those airmen were pilots, and out of them 352 were deployed and fought in combat.
While there were more African American men in the program, there were also male and female mechanics of different races, plus many women who operated as test pilots and parachute technicians.
“Anyone – man or woman, military or civilian, black or white — who served at Tuskegee Army Air Field or in any of the programs stemming from the ‘Tuskegee Experience’ between the years 1941-1949 is considered to be a documented Original Tuskegee Airman (DOTA),” the Tuskegee Airmen historical site said.
Oftentimes these Black airmen flew double the number of combat missions as white pilots, were treated poorly by fellow military members throughout their service and continued to experience racism despite being newly included into the pilot program, including while being overseas, according to Richard Baugh, son of Lt. Col. Howard Baugh of the Tuskegee Airmen. Baugh said his father flew 136 combat missions, while white pilots were typically rotated out after 50 missions.
Because of The Tuskegee Airmen, the U.S. won World War II in August of 1945. In total, The Tuskegee Airmen flew over 15,000 individual missions and shot down 112 enemy airplanes in World War II, according to the National World War II Museum.
Seven years after the pilot training program began, President Harry Truman changed the Army’s policies by signing an executive order ending segregation in the United States military, marking the Tuskegee Airmen's second victory. This was a turning point in the way the military handled race and is widely credited to the Tuskegee Airmen’s struggles and victories.
Following their service in the military, many Tuskegee airmen have been awarded medals, have been asked to publicly speak on their experiences, and on March 29, 2007 the Tuskegee Airmen were collectively awarded a Congressional Gold Medal at a ceremony in the U.S. Capitol rotunda. Additionally we annually celebrate the official anniversary of the Tuskegee Airmen on the fourth Thursday in March — representative of the day that President FDR activated the fighter squadron.
But, who are the Tuskegee Airmen? During the month of February and leading up to their 81st anniversary on March 24, we are highlighting individual Airmen, as well as family members of the airmen, in order to show their importance in today’s society.
Richard Baugh, son of Lt. Col. Howard Baugh of the Tuskegee Airmen, contributed to this article. You can find out more about the Tuskegee airmen here.