Airmen in Combat
The 99th Fighter Squadron was sent to North Africa in April 1943 for combat duty. They were joined by the 100th, 301st, and 302nd African-American fighter squadrons. Together these squadrons formed the 332nd fighter group. The transition from training to actual combat wasn’t always smooth, given the racial tensions of the time. However, the airmen overcame the obstacles posed by segregation. Under the able command of Colonel Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., the well-trained and highly-motivated 332nd flew successful missions over Sicily, the Mediterranean, and North Africa.
Bomber crews named the Tuskegee Airmen “Red-Tail Angels” after the red tail markings on their aircraft. Also known as “Lonely Eagles,” the German Luftwaffe called them “Black Bird Men.” The Tuskegee Airmen flew in the Mediterranean theater of operations. The airmen completed 15,500 missions, destroyed over 260 enemy aircraft, sank one enemy destroyer, and demolished numerous enemy installations. Several aviators died in combat. The Tuskegee Airmen were awarded numerous high honors, including Distinguished Flying Crosses, Legions of Merit, Silver Stars, Purple Hearts, the Croix de Guerre, and the Red Star of Yugoslavia. They never lost a bomber to enemy fighters. In 1945, a Distinguished Unit Citation was awarded to the 332nd Fighter Group for “outstanding performance and extraordinary heroism” in 1945.
The Tuskegee Airmen of the 477th Bombardment Group never saw action in World War II. However, they staged a peaceful, nonviolent protest for equal rights at Freeman Field, Indiana, in April 1945.
Their achievements proved conclusively that the Tuskegee Airmen were highly disciplined and capable fighters. They earned the respect of fellow bomber crews and of military leaders. Having fought America’s enemies abroad, the Tuskegee Airmen returned to the U.S. to join the struggle to win equality at home.
More than ten thousand African-American men and women in military and civilian groups supported the Tuskegee Airmen. They served as flight instructors, officers, bombardiers, navigators, radio technicians, mechanics, air traffic controllers, parachute riggers, and electrical and communications specialists.
Support personnel also included laboratory assistants, cooks, musicians, and supply, firefighting, and transportation personnel. Their participation helped pave the way for the desegregation of the military that had begun with President Harry S Truman’s Executive Order 9981 in 1948. As the civilian world gradually began to integrate, African Americans entered commercial aviation and the space program.
Benjamin O. Davis
In 1936, Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. graduated from West Point Military Academy; he was the first African American to do so in forty-seven years. First assigned to Fort Benning, Georgia, Davis served as an aide to his father, Brigadier General Benjamin O. Davis, Sr., before transferring to the military science staff at Tuskegee Institute, Alabama.
As one of the first five graduates to get wings at Tuskegee Army Air Field in March 1942, Davis was assigned to the newly activated 99th Fighter Squadron. By August of that year, he had become squadron commander. Early in 1943 the 99th left for North Africa. The group flew many combat missions under Davis’s command. Davis returned to the U.S. in September 1943 to assume command of the 332nd Fighter Group. Major George S. “Spanky” Roberts remained in Europe and became the commanding officer of the 99th Fighter Squadron.
The fighter group was transferred to Italy in February 1944 where they maintained an outstanding combat record. The 332nd flew bomber escorts. In March 1945, Davis led the 332nd on a 1,600-mile round-trip escort mission to Berlin. During that mission, the Tuskegee Airmen never lost a bomber, despite an onslaught of the latest and fastest enemy German planes. The 332nd won a Distinguished Unit Citation for the mission.
1. The Tuskegee Airmen were called “Red-Tail Angels” because
a. of the number of pilots they lost in combat.b.of markings on their planes.c. they never lost a bomber to enemy fighters.d.they earned the Red Star of Yugoslavia.
2. The Tuskegee Airmen are best remembered for
a. destroying enemy installations.b.the Purple Hearts they won.c. their competence in battle.d.peaceful, nonviolent protests.
3. In terms of military history, Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. should best be remembered for
a. being African American.b.being the son of a brigadier general.c. having an outstanding combat record.d.graduating from West Point.
4. Tuskegee Airmen and other African Americans who fought in World War II returned home to another battle on the homefront. What was this battle? How do you think that serving so successfully in the military might have helped these men to be prepared for this next big challenge? In what way was their lack of civil rights in the U.S. unfair to these war heroes?