The Tuskegee Airmen



World War II changed the face of America's armed forces as African-American men and women participated in liberating the world from the rise of tyranny and fascism. But the road to preserving world democracy was paved by the legacy of racism.

At the foundation of America's history is the institutionalized practice of racial segregation and discrimination that denied full citizenship to African Americans. Nonetheless, history is dotted with an infinite number of Black and White men and women who refused to allow prejudicial ignorance to limit their full participation in society.

From America's earliest military history, Blacks have been involved in all wars (declared and undeclared). Oftentimes they were not given full credit and recognition for services rendered; and in most cases, when they served in the country, they were isolated to all-Black units.

World War II was no exception, there was still a deeply entrenched policy of racial segregation of the armed forces. When the U.S. officially entered the war, Black leaders and the Black press increased their protest of the separate and significantly inferior access to training, facilities and participation that was available to Blacks.

Faced with the realities of war, the federal government reluctantly established The 66th Air Force Flying School at the Tuskegee Institute. Blacks considered this a flawed compromise but welcomed the opportunity to prove their ability and commitment to the war efforts.

On May 31, 1943, the 99th Squadron, the first group of men trained at the Tuskegee Institute, arrived in North Africa. These combat pioneers began their journey towards redefining America's relationship with Black men in the Air Force.

In Sicily the squadron registered their first victory against an enemy aircraft and went on to more impressive strategic strikes against the German forces throughout Italy. Though often handicapped, when given a chance to fully participate, the record of the 99th in action is extremely impressive.

The Afro-American's correspondents documented the successes and frustrations of the Black military personnel. Their reports to the AFRO from 1941-1944 were complied by then publisher, Carl Murphy, in the book This is Our War. Their writing is treasured not only for its historical value, but also for the excellence of the writing. Along with an important historical record, these writers returned from Europe, Africa, the North and the Southwest Pacific with taut, engaging prose that still stands as a literary gem. Reports by Art Carter focused on the men of the 99th; he joined the group in Italy in December 1943, seven months after their initial arrival from Tuskegee.

However, the triumphs of the Tuskegee Airmen did not appease those who refused to accept their presence. Harsh criticisms were levied against them, adding to their frustrations. The men of the 99th had set high standards for themselves because they realized that every move was being scrutinized and that their success or failure would directly impact the future of Blacks in the military.

Their success was particularly evident when the 99th was paired with the 79th Fighter Group on October 9, 1943. The 79th was an all-White Squadron led by Col Earl Bates. For the first time they were integrated in the missions to eliminate their German opponents. They were no longer restricted to escort duties, but instead were assigned to bombing key German strongholds.

Operation Strangle
, the last assignment of the team of the 79th and the 99th, marked the end of the 99th Squadron unit. On July 4, 1944, the 99th was joined into three other Squadrons: the 100th, 301st and the 302 to form the 332nd Fighter Group. All three groups were new to the combat zone, and like the 99th, had been trained at the Tuskegee institute. While their initial union was strained, the new group continued to demonstrate that they had the commitment, the drive and the technical ability to carry out successful military assignments.

Consequently, when the war ended, the War Department and the federal government were forced to reassess their segregated military policy. After several committee reports, President Truman was forced to issue two executive orders that effectively paved the way for the integration of the Air Force.


Copyright 2001-, Terry Muse
Revised: December 29, 2001
Contact: Terry Muse