As the first black aviators to serve in the US Army Air Corps, Tuskegee Airmen broke a barrier of massive segregation in the US military. Their success and heroism during World War II, fighting the Germans in the skies of Europe, shattered the ubiquitous stereotypes that African Americans had neither character nor fighting skills. And their achievements laid the crucial foundation for the advancement of civil rights in the decades to come.
In the summer of 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Civilian Pilot Training Program Act to train civilian aviators in colleges and vocational schools for a national emergency. The law contained a provision that “none of the benefits of training or programs should be denied on the basis of race, creed or color”. At the time, there were only 124 black pilots licensed in the United States – and none in the Army Air Corps.
Of six historically black colleges and universities included in the program, the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama has become the most renowned. In January 1941, the War Department, under pressure from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to include black aviators, established the country’s first black flying unit in Tuskegee: the 99 e Pursuit Squadron, later renamed 99e Fighter squadron.
Between 1941 and 1945, nearly 1,000 pilots trained under the Tuskegee program; of these, 450 fought during World II in the 99e and 332nd Groups of hunters. In air battles over North Africa and Europe, these pilots have flown over 1,500 missions, largely as escort planes for bomber aircraft, but sometimes in direct combat. Among the amazing men who served as Tuskegee-trained pilots, here are six highlights:
READ MORE: The Birth of Tuskegee Aviators
Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. (1912-2002)
At a time when African Americans faced Overwhelming racism and discrimination in the military, Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., son of the first black general in the military, built a historic career: one of the few African Americans to be admitted to the United States Military Academy at West Point since Reconstruction – and the only one there during his own tenure – he commanded the Tuskegee airmen, served in three wars, and himself became a general.
After graduating from West Point in 1936, Davis, Jr. was denied entry to the Army Air Corp due to his race and first served as an infantry officer. In 1941, when the War Department began training black pilots at Tuskegee Airfield, he became one of the first five pilots to receive his wings. During World War II he served as the commander of two Tuskegee units to see combat: the 99th Fighter Squadron and the 332nd Group of hunters. Under his leadership, they shot down 112 enemy planes and destroyed or damaged 273 on the ground. His groups lost only 66 of their planes and only about 25 of the bombers under their escort. For leading the two units in Europe, Davis won several honors, including the Silver Star. President Harry Truman then asked him to help draft the military’s historic desegregation plan.
When Davis was promoted to Brigadier General in 1954, he became the first African-American General in the Air Force. In 2002, he was promoted to full general on the Retiree List in a White House ceremony with President Bill Clinton. In 2019, the US Air Force Academy gave its name to its airfield.
WATCH: Executive Order 9981: Desegregation of the US Armed Forces
Daniel Chappie James (1920-1978)
Daniel James, the Air Force’s first black four-star general, joined the Tuskegee Airmen in 1943, but spent World War II in the United States as a flight instructor. During the Korean War, he flew 101 combat missions. As the vice-commander of the Eighth Tactical Fighter Wing in Thailand, James flew 78 combat missions during the Vietnam War.
In 1970, as commander of 7272nd The fighter training wing at Wheelus Air Base in Libya, James had a memorable standoff with Muammar al-Gaddafi, who had recently successfully led a military coup by the Libyan government. Gaddafi was trying to take over the base when he met James outside his doors: “I had my .45 in my belt. I told him to move his hand away. If he’d pulled that gun out, he never would have released his holster, ”James said.
The meeting went off without incident and James was able to remove 4,000 people and $ 21 million in assets from the facility. He died on February 25, 1978, a month after retiring from the Air Force.
Roscoe Brown (1922-2016)
During World War II, Roscoe Brown flew 68 combat missions, downing a German aircraft outside Berlin on an escort mission in 1945. As part of Tuskegee Airmen’s bomber escort missions in the 99e Fighter squadron, he was one of the three red-tailed angels. In 2007, Brown and five other Tuskegee Airmen accepted the Congressional Gold Medal on behalf of the nearly 1,000 black men who completed the Tuskegee Airmen Program between 1941 and 1945. Brown was also awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his bravery and skill.
In an oral history, Brown said: “Lots of bomber pilots [we escorted] said: “We saw the P-51 Red Tail and they were our saviors… A lot of them didn’t know – most of them didn’t know -[we] were African Americans.
After the war, Brown became an educator, social activist and one of the main custodians of the Tuskegee Airmen legacy until his death at the age of 94.
READ MORE: The Tuskegee Aviators: 5 Fascinating Facts
Charles McGee (born 1919)
After graduating from flight training at Tuskegee in 1943, Charles McGee was assigned to the 332nd Fighter Group, in which he flew 137 combat missions. By the time he retired from the Air Force in 1973 at the rank of Colonel, he had flown 409 combined combat missions during WWII, Korea and the Vietnam War – more than any other pilot. of the air force. Along with Roscoe Brown, McGee flew the P-51B Mustang and was one of the Red Tailed Angels who escorted heavy bombers over targets in occupied Europe.
To celebrate its 100 yearse birthday in 2019, McGee flew a private jet from Maryland to Dover Air Force Base, where he was greeted by 100 service members from the 436e Air transport wing. McGee is one of Tuskegee’s oldest aviators.
Lucius Theus (1922-2007)
Theus is the first and only Tuskegee Airmen’s Mission Support Officer to be promoted to General and the third Black Air Force General after Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., and Daniel Chappie James. During World War II he served as a member of the 332nd Group of hunters.
After World War II, he quickly rose through the ranks as an Air Force personnel officer. After a race riot between black and white enlisted men and non-commissioned officers at Travis Air Force Base in 1971, Theus was called in to administer programs aimed at equal opportunity and racial communication in the military, initiatives that had first been inspired nearly 30 years earlier. thanks to the success of the Tuskegee Airmen.
Theus became the first African-American combat support officer promoted to the rank of general officer.
Charles Alfred ‘Chief’ Anderson (1907-1996)
Known as the father of black aviation, Charles Anderson was Tuskegee’s chief civilian flight instructor during World War II. In 1932, after receiving his pilot’s license, he was the only black flight instructor in the United States.
In the years to come, along with another black aviation pioneer, Dr. Albert Forsythe, Anderson achieved several “firsts” for African-American pilots. Among their exploits, Anderson and Forsythe achieved the first transcontinental round trip for black pilots: from Atlantic City to Los Angeles in 1933.
In 1941, as the chief aviation instructor at Tuskegee, Anderson gave First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt a flight during her visit to Tuskegee. She had heard, in his words, “that people of color cannot fly”, but after their short trip she could say, “Well, I see you can fly very well!” Coverage of his visit helped solidify support in Washington for the program.
During World War II, Anderson was the ground commander of Tuskegee and the chief aviation instructor for the 99e Pursuit squadron. After World War II, Chief Anderson continued to train pilots at Moten Field in Tuskegee.
In 2014, he became the first Tuskegee Airman to appear on a US postage stamp.