Before World War II, leaders of the Army Air Corps (predecessor to the modern-day Air Force) barred African Americans from serving in uniform. Facing mounting public pressure in the years before the war, the U.S. government ordered the removal of some restrictions against Black aviators, first by opening civilian training programs in 1939, and then by accepting Black pilots into racially segregated units of the Army Air Corps in 1941. A new air base at Tuskegee, Alabama, became the center for the training program of Black air personnel. First with the 99th Fighter Squadron and later with the 332nd Fighter Group, African Americans contributed to the war effort, serving in the Mediterranean combat theater, flying from bases in North Africa and Italy while supporting operations against German forces. Later, the USAAF created the 477th Bombardment Group of African American B-25 Mitchell crews, which did not see combat. These were the Tuskegee Airmen.
Meet Some of the Tuskegee Airmen
The story of the Tuskegee Airmen is linked directly to the life and career of Gen. Benjamin O. Davis Jr., who at various times during the war, commanded each of the units of Black aviators. The son of an Army general and a 1936 graduate of West Point, Davis was a member of the first class of cadets to earn their wings at Tuskegee in 1942. He was selected to lead the new 99th Pursuit Squadron, the Army Air Corps' first all-black air unit. Davis led the 99th and later the 332nd Fighter Group in Europe during World War II. Under Davis, the 332nd escorted American bombers and conducted ground attack missions over the Mediterranean and central European theaters. He later took command of the 477th Bombardment Group. After the war, Davis continued his military career in the newly independent and integrated U.S. Air Force. He became the first African American general officer in the United States Air Force and was posthumously promoted to full General in 1998.
A first lieutenant, part of the 616th Bombardment Squadron, Rayner later remembered his experiences in an oral history with Studs Terkel.
Brig. Gen. Charles McGee began his military career as a Tuskegee Airman. He was stationed in Italy and flew 137 combat missions, including one in which he shot down a German Fw 190. He later returned to Tuskegee Army Airfield as an instructor. He continued to serve in the United States Air Force, flying 100 combat missions in the Korean War, and 172 missions in the Vietnam War as commander of the 16th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron.
Linkwood Williams, a civilian flight instructor, was one of several talented Black aviators who served as instructors for primary flight training at Tuskegee Airfield.
Originally from New York City, Lt. Col. Lee Archer became one of the most proficient pilots in the 332nd, becoming the third of three Tuskegee Airmen to achieve four victories in air-to-air combat. After flying 169 combat missions in World War II, Archer continued to serve in the United States Air Force until 1970.
Maj. Charles Hall was from Brazil, Indiana. He downed an Fw 190 while on an escort mission on July 2, 1943. This marked the first aerial victory for the United States by an African American airman.
A career Army Air Corps pilot, Noel F. Parrish took a keen interest in promoting Black involvement in military aviation. In the late 1930s, he befriended Cornelius Coffey and admired the flying program of his Challengers Air Pilots' Association in Chicago.
Lt. Col. Parrish took command of Tuskegee Army Air Field in 1941 and oversaw the training of airmen for Black fighter and bomber squadrons. He held that post throughout World War II. Parrish did much to make the Tuskegee program a success. He provided leadership and promoted morale among the cadets at a time when the armed forces remained segregated.
A Pattern of Resistance
The Tuskegee Airmen’s fight for equality involved more than their skills in the air. It required coordinated, collective actions of civil disobedience in which 162 officers risked their careers and their lives to stand up against systemic racism in the US Army Air Forces (AAF).
The largest of these incidents became known as the Freeman Field Mutiny. On April 5, 1945, the African American officers began a pre-planned display of resistance. In small groups of just a few officers at a time, they began entering the white “instructor” club, 36 of them getting arrested in the process. The next night the same tactic played out again, with another 25 arrested. The club was then closed, and 110 officers wrote to the Army Inspector General to request an investigation into the arrests.
Col. Charles McGee reflects on how the Tuskegee Airmen contributed to the war effort while fighting prejudice
The lessons Col. Charles McGee learned as a Tuskegee Airman and applied to the rest of his life.
This episode of STEM in 30 will look at the role African Americans played during the war and how World War II changed aviation history.
Lt. General William Earl Brown, USAF ret. reflects on the accomplishments of the Tuskegee Airmen and how they inspired him to become a pilot.