For many years, the story of the Tuskegee Airmen—a group of African American airmen who flew combat missions in racially segregated units in World War II—was not well known to the American public. Although much research remains to be done, the story of these men has become somewhat famous in recent years, thanks not only to memoirs and scholarly histories, but also to several motional pictures, books, television shows, documentaries, and other pop culture references. Their story is usually presented as one of triumph, in which their exemplary performance helped pave the way for the integration of the United States armed services in 1948. While this narrative is not wrong, it is, as always, more complicated than that. It took a lot more than combat effectiveness to prove to some military leaders that African Americans could and should be able to fly and fight for their country. Racism was deeply entrenched in the American military and has not been completely removed even 75 years later. 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.
Although some white officers welcomed and supported the creation of African American units, such as Captain Noel Parrish, many AAF leaders resisted allowing African Americans to fly American aircraft. It was only possible at all thanks to organized, collective lobbying and public pressure. The two most impactful groups were the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) and African American press outlets, particularly the Pittsburgh Courier. These groups placed considerable pressure on politicians in Congress and on President Franklin Roosevelt, who in turn demanded the AAF begin to accept African Americans as combat pilots. This combination of organized activism that threatened the reelection chances of politicians led to top-down demands and spurred the creation of the Tuskegee Airmen, so named for their training location in Tuskegee, Alabama.
The first African American unit to fly in combat was the 99th Pursuit Squadron, flying P-40 Warhawks with the 33rd Fighter Group. The 33rd’s commander, Col. William Momyer, tried to get the 99th removed from combat duty, claiming that the group was ineffective and had not performed well in air-to-air combat. This ignored the fact that Momyer himself ordered the squadron primarily to a ground attack role. A subsequent investigation showed that the 99th performed equally to other Warhawk squadrons. This was not the last time that AAF commanders tried to subvert what they considered the Tuskegee “experiment” based on false assumptions about African American abilities.
The 99th was not alone. The AAF also stood up the 332nd Fighter Group, consisting of three more squadrons of African American pilots: the 100th, 301st, and 302nd, flying P-39 Airacobras and P-40 Warhawks. Later, the 99th FS joined the 332nd FG, all flying combat missions based out of Italy. During the summer of 1944, they began flying P-47 Thunderbolts and P-51 Mustangs, including long-range escort missions of bombers deep into Berlin. The 332nd FG performed well in air-to-air combat, shooting down 94 enemy aircraft. Three of those aerial victories were against German Me-262 jet aircraft. This was far from the highest in the Fifteenth Air Force, but it did beat the records of the all-white 1st FG (72) and 14th FG (85). None of the Tuskegee Airmen reached ace status, but 1st Lt Lee Archer came close with four kills. Tuskegee Airmen also succeeded at escorting bombers to their targets. The all-white units of the Fifteenth Air Force lost an average of 46 bombers on escort duty during the war, but the African American pilots of the 332nd lost only 27.
Despite all that the 332nd FG accomplished, one of the Tuskegee Airmen’s most significant moments involved a unit that did not get a chance to fly in combat: the 477th Bombardment Group. Activated in January 1944, the 477th consisted of four squadrons of B-25 Mitchell aircraft. The AAF was committed to segregation and lacked the resources to create a new separate training facility for navigators and bombardiers. Thus, the group used an existing training facility at Selfridge Field, Michigan, and added segregated facilities to it. The group was commanded by Col. Robert Selway and attached to the First Air Force. Selway was not happy with the concept of African American crews, and worked actively to prevent them from being promoted to command positions, regardless of competency or number of flight hours. Yet the bigger opposition to the Tuskegee Airmen came from the Selfridge base commander Col. William Boyd and the commander of the First Air Force, Maj. Gen. Frank Hunter. Hunter had become a decorated ace fighter pilot during World War I, and preferred the racial policies of that era, arguing that African Americans should be concentrated on as few bases as possible to handle what he called “the Negro problem.”
Hunter and Boyd established a history of discrimination at Selfridge early in 1944 when he banned African American officers from entering the base officers’ club. Lt. Milton Henry, an African American pilot and officer who had already faced punishment for his refusal to abide by Jim Crow regulations on Montgomery busses, entered the club and demanded service. When refused, he issued a complaint. Further investigation resulted in a formal reprimand to Boyd and Hunter from the War Department. Gen. Benjamin Davis Sr. (the first African American General, who at the time served in the Office of the Inspector General) recommended that Boyd and Hunter both be removed from command and court-martialed. The AAF ignored this and instead court-martialed and discharged Henry, who had issued the complaint. At the same time, Lt. Gen. Barney Giles, the chief of the Air Staff at AAF Headquarters, apologized to Boyd and Hunter for the reprimand, saying that the Air Staff “backed them 100% on this thing,” and that Hunter’s discrimination policies had the approval of Gen. Henry “Hap” Arnold, the commander of the AAF.
The AAF argued that the cause of racial tension at Selfridge was due not to the discriminatory policies of its commanders, but to outside agitators in nearby Detroit, the press, and communists. The AAF used that as justification to move the 477th to Godman Field near Fort Knox, Kentucky, citing that it was a better place to conduct flying training. That claim bordered on ludicrous: Godman not only had less than 25% of the space and facilities available at Selfridge, but its runways could not handle bombers, there was no air-to-ground gunnery range, and it did not have enough housing to hold the group. The atmosphere in the South also proved challenging. For example, in one incident, a white private refused to salute Capt. Clarence Southall, an African American officer. The private explained that “he was from the South and did not salute Negroes.” Southall attempted to court martial the man, but instead his commanders transferred the private to another base with no punishment and threatened to charge Southall with inciting a riot.
Because of the limitations on facilities and personnel, the 477th was not being trained together. Some people assigned to the 477th were spread at other bases around the country where they experienced similar discriminatory policies. For example, African American officers at Midland Army Air Base in Texas were prohibited from using the officers’ club when it scheduled a dance that planned for white women to attend. African American officers such as Lt. Coleman Young submitted formal complaints and were again labelled communist agitators by their superiors.
The inadequacies in training procedures and facilities, combined with racial discrimination policies and practices, began to pile up. In an attempt to solve the facilities problem, the AAF moved the 477th yet again, this time to Freeman Field, just outside the town of Seymour in southern Indiana. Although the training facilities there were far better than at Godman, the local population were less than welcoming. Restaurants and grocery stores refused service to African Americans. Already strained by discriminatory policies, hostile commanders, and training inadequacies, Selway’s and Hunter’s attempt to circumvent AAF regulations and segregate the facilities at Freeman pushed the African American officers of the 477th to the point of a major collective action of civil disobedience.
Read more in the follow-up blog "Mutiny at Freeman Field: The Tuskegee Airmen on Trial, Part 2."