The Legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen

  • Published
  • By Mr. Christopher J. McCune
  • 460th Space Wing Historian
On April 3, 1939, Congress passed Public Law 18. Nominally established to increase manpower in the U.S. Army Air Corps via civilian training schools, a controversial provision was included that directed the establishment of a separate schoolhouse to train African-Americans as pilots.

Because the law did not explicitly state that the program graduates would be immediately transitioned to the military as active-duty Airmen, the Air Corps, like other U.S. military branches, still practicing a decades-long tradition of racial segregation between white and African-American service members, initially resisted setting up technical and military pilot training schools for those individuals who completed training.

However, pressure from activist groups, Army officials and the passage of the Selective Service Act in 1940 forced the Air Corps to accept these individuals. On Jan. 3, 1941, the war department activated the 99th Pursuit Squadron at Moton Field, located adjacent to the Tuskegee Institute near Montgomery, Alabama to train African-American fighter pilots.

The 99th PS thus became the first all-black flying unit in U.S. history, serving as the cornerstone of arguably the most famous collection of pilots in Air Force history, the Tuskegee Airmen. They were followed by the 332nd Fighter Group on July 4, 1942, and the 477th Bombardment Group on June 1, 1943, although the 477th BG never saw combat.

Ironically, while the Air Corps stubbornly attempted to maintain the system of racial segregation for these units throughout the war, the training facilities at Tuskegee were considered among the best and the curriculums the most intense in the service.

These high quality paid dividends after the 99th PS, later renamed the 99th Fighter Squadron, was deployed to North Africa in April 1943, followed by the 332nd FG to Italy in January 1944. These units initially executed strafing and dive-bombing missions; after the 99th FS joined the 332nd FG in July 1944, they operated in various countries throughout the European theater, serving as escorts for bombing missions and regularly engaging German pilots in air-to-air combat.

Not only did the 332nd FG gain a reputation for bringing their bomber crews home safely, but the necessities of war and working in proximity with squadrons of white fighter pilots and bomber crews demonstrated that the Army’s policy of racial segregation did not foster the teamwork and esprit de corps necessary to win wars.

It is not an exaggeration to state that the crucible of winning World War II began the slow, but steady process of breaking down racial discrimination laws and norms during the Civil Rights era.

Buckley Air Force Base has its own connection to the Tuskegee Airmen, back when it was called Buckley Field. The fighter squadrons required personnel to both maintain and arm aircraft, so in January 1943, the Air Corps, now the Army Air Forces, authorized African-American soldiers to be trained as armorers for the first time.

As Buckley Field was responsible for training fighter armorers at the time, the base’s segregated 86th Aviation Squadron soon became home to 600 students that same month. The first class of 52 students graduated on March 27th, 1943, and were subsequently reassigned to the 99th FS. One of these graduates, Pfc. Everett Johnson, Jr., was named the class’ honor graduate and later selected to become an officer via the Army’s Officer Indoctrination Course.

In addition to their sterling war record, several of the Tuskegee Airmen continued to serve after the war and went on to become some of the most notable names in Air Force history.

Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. became the service’s first African-American general officer; Daniel “Chappie” James, Jr. became the first to achieve the rank of four-star general; and the team of Capt. Alva Temple, 1st Lt. Harry Stewart, 1st Lt. James H. Harvey III, 1st Lt. Halbert Alexander, and Staff Sgt. Buford Johnson won the Air Force’s first “Top Gun” competition in 1949.

Despite suffering under intense racial prejudice, segregation and discrimination, the experiences of these individuals and the rest of the Tuskegee Airmen continued to provide object lessons to servicemen and women across the U.S. military, demonstrating the value of patriotic service, dedication to achieve excellence, and the perseverance to overcome the obstacles placed in front of them.