U.S. Military History: The Tuskegee Airmen

Gen. Benjamin O. Davis Jr., poses for a photo next to his plane during World War II as a colonel commanding the Tuskegee Airmen. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

The story of the legendary Tuskegee Airmen begins with a widespread, racist belief that black people couldn’t learn to operate sophisticated aircraft. Like much of the United States in the late 1930’s, the U.S. military was a segregated place. However, lobbying from organizations including the NAACP led to President Franklin D. Roosevelt to launch what was then-known as the “Tuskegee Experiment”; the development of a flight school at Alabama’s historic Tuskegee University. The program began on July 19, 1941 with one officer and twelve cadets. 

The program was intense, as Harold Hoskins remembers. Hoskins had the experience of not only being a student at Tuskegee, but then also at an integrated pilot school at Randolph Air Base in Texas. According to Hoskins, the program was “so rigorous, you didn’t have time to think.” He recalled significant hazing experiences. At just 18 years old, these teenage pilots realized that their success would determine the future of African American pilots. A heavy burden to carry. 

However to say that the “Tuskegee Experiment” was a success would be a significant understatement. The men were deployed first to North Africa in the spring of 1942. Time and time again, and whether they were flying in second-hand P-40’s or P-51 Mustangs with red painted tails (which earned their enduring “Red Tails” nickname), the Tuskegee Airmen proved themselves. There was even a myth that arose that in their over 200 escort missions, the Tuskegee Airmen never lost a bomber. That would prove to be untrue years later, but their 25+ bombers that got shot down is significantly lower than the other escort groups of the 15th Air Force, who lost an average of 46 bombers. 

Despite their groundbreaking success and brave service, the Tuskegee Airmen arrived back home to the same systematic racism and prejudice they faced before serving their country. Many of the men went on to have long careers in the military, including the squadron’s commander Benjamin O. Davis Jr, who became the Air Force’s first black general (he later retired as a colonel). Daniel “Chappie” James Jr. went on to become the first black four star general in the United States in 1975. The 992 pilots that completed the training program at Tuskegee, and the nearly-half that were deployed overseas and flew more than 1,500 missions that destroyed over 260 enemy aircrafts were crucial when President Harry S. Truman decided to desegregate the U.S. military in 1948.

In 1998, President Clinton approved a law designating an area of Monton Field in Tuskegee, Alabama as the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site. The site enshrines the heroic actions of the Tuskegee Airmen during World War II, and recognizes their contributions to the integration of the U.S. military. In 2007, President George W. Bush presented more than 300 original Tuskegee Airmen with the Congressional Gold Medal.  

Sources:

https://www.history.com/topics/world-war-ii/tuskegee-airmen

http://tuskegeeairmen.org/explore-tai/a-brief-history/

https://www.military.com/history/the-tuskegee-airmen.html

https://www.britannica.com/topic/Tuskegee-Airmen

https://www.history.com/news/the-birth-of-the-tuskegee-airmen

 

 

Posted on February 3 2020 in Blog

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