Some of the many unspoken heroes of American history during World War II are the Tuskegee Airmen, the first Black American pilots in the military.
Before the Tuskegee Airmen, Black Americans were not allowed in the Air Force due to racist Jim Crow laws that enforced segregation. But during WWII the U.S. needed pilots.
Even though the Civilian Pilot Training Program started training Black Americans in the 1930s, there were debates among leaders outside of the military regarding Black Americans serving in the Air Force. But the NAACP and other organizations fought for inclusion.
In January 1941, under the direction of the NAACP, a student from Howard University filed a lawsuit against the War Department to compel his admission to a pilot training center. The military succumbed to the pressure, and on January 16, 1941, Secretary of the Army Henry L. Stimson agreed to the creation of a Black pursuit squadron. This unit was to be called the 99th Pursuit Squadron.
In March, 1941 President Franklin Roosevelt officially formed an all Black WWII fighter squadron; this was the first step in the Tuskegee Airmen program.
In this program, they monitored Black Americans to see if they could be trained to be pilots and support personnel. The millitary set unreasonably high standards for the enlistees, expecting them to fail. Instead, they excelled.
On July 19, 1941, aviation cadets and one student officer reported to the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama to start flight training as the first Black pilot candidates in the military. On March 7, 1942 the first cadets graduated from Tuskegee Army Airfield and became the first Black Americans in the U.S. Air Force. Today, we know them as the Tuskegee Airmen, also called Red Tails, a nickname they acquired from the painted tails and fuselage.
Out of 996 pilots, only 352 were deployed to fight in the war. While there were more men in the program, women also served in various ways, including as test pilots and parachute technicians.
The Tuskegee airmen flew the P-40 and P-39 aircraft and later were assigned to the more advanced P-51 and P-47 airplanes escorting B-17 bombers fighting against German aircraft and protecting the bombers. On March 24, 1945, while escorting bombers, the Red Tails destroyed three ME‑262 fighter aircraft. The ME‑262 had jet engines instead of propeller engines which gave the jet an advantage.
But the enemy wasn't the only thing they were fighting, they were also fighting against racism both in the air and on the ground. Soon, the bomber crew and other pilots started respecting them for their bravery and piloting skill. Only 66 Tuskegee Airmen died in combat, in total they flew 1,578 missions. They also had the lowest bomber loss records of any escort fighting group.
The Tuskegee Airmen were awarded eight Purple Hearts, 96 Distinguished Crosses, a Congressional Gold Medal and earned three Unit Citations, one of them being for destroying three German jet fighters. To remember the Tuskegee Airmen, there is an official anniversary on the day former President Roosevelt started up the fighter squadron.
[Source: PBS; National WW2 Museum]