The 'Tuskegee Experiment:' The Legend of the Tuskegee Airmen

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Reggie Manning
  • 341st Missile Wing Public Affairs
Editor's Note: This is part eight of an eight-part series that highlights some of the men and women who have been influential in the early history of the United States Air Force.

In a time where African Americans were faced with adversity and provided limited opportunities, a small project titled 'The Tuskegee Experiment' came into effect and shocked the world. Based in Tuskegee, Ala., the facility trained African Americans for aerial combat and the techniques of maintaining combat aircraft. The term Tuskegee Airmen refers to everyone involved in this Army Air Corps program; including pilots, navigators, bombardiers, maintenance and support staff, instructors and every living soul that dedicated their lives to keeping those planes in the air.

Tuskegee, Ala., was chosen as an ideal location because of the flying friendly climate that allowed year-round training. The first Civilian Pilot Training Program students completed training in May, 1940. After the success of the first wave, the Tuskegee program was expanded and became the center for African American aviation during World War ll.

Before these Airmen were sent to fight enemies overseas, they first battled racism and segregation from military officials, as well as people who simply didn't want African Americans to become pilots. Instead of letting these obstacles deter them, the Tuskegee Airmen used their experiences as fuel and set out to prove that they could fly just as good, if not better, than other pilots.

The training of black pilots had an additional level of difficulty, as there were no black instructors at the time. Eleven white officers were assigned to instruct the 429 enlisted men and 47 officers, thus introducing one of the first examples of an integrated unit.

The program received a publicity boost in March, 1941 from first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, when she conducted an inspection on the facility. Alfred "Chief" Anderson, who had been flying since 1929, took the first lady airborne on a half-hour flight. Upon landing, the first lady cheerfully announced, "Well, you can sure fly alright."

Even after proving their worth as world-class pilots, the Tuskegee Airmen still encountered segregation and weren't permitted to fly alongside their white counterparts.

The Tuskegee Airmen were known as the "Red Tail Angels" because of the distinctive red paint on their aircraft propellers and tails, and their honorable record of never losing a bomber on an escort mission.

George Roberts, Benjamin Davis Jr., Charles BeBow Jr., Mac Ross and Lemuel Custis received silver wings of Army Air Force pilots in March, 1942. These men completed the standard Army flight classroom instruction and many hours of flight time. Receiving their silver wings marked a milestone in being the first African Americans to qualify as military pilots in any branch of the armed forces.

Nine hundred and thirty two men graduated from the Negro Air Corps pilot training at Tuskegee by the time the war ended. With more than 450 deployed overseas, a total of 150 men lost their lives in combat fights. These men managed to run 200 successful bomber escort missions; destroy or damage more than 409 German airplanes and 950 ground units, and even sank a battleship destroyer. Their influence on World War ll earned them the nickname Schwartze Volgelmenshen (Black Birdmen) by Germans who both feared and respected them.

The Tuskegee Airmen, under the command of Col. Benjamin O. Davis Jr., fought in the aerial war over North Africa, Sicily and Europe, flying in succession, P-40, P-39, P-47 and P-51 type aircraft. These men flew 15,553 sorties completing 1,578 missions with the 12th Tactical, and the 15th Strategic, U.S. Army Air Force. Davis later became the first black general in the U.S. Air Force and rose to the rank of lieutenant general.

The 99th Fighter Squadron merged with three other Black squadrons: the 100th, the 301st and the 302nd to form the 332nd Fighter Group, comprising the largest fighter unit in the 15th Air Force. From Italian bases, they also destroyed enemy rail traffic, coastal surveillance stations and hundreds of vehicles on air-to-ground strafing missions.

Sixty six of these pilots were killed in aerial combat while another 32 were either forced down or shot down and captured as prisoners of war. The Airmen returned home with more than 150 decorations including the Distinguished Flying Cross, Legion of Merit and the Red Star of Yugoslavia.

President Clinton approved Public Law 105-355, on Nov. 6, 1998, which established the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site at Moton Field in Tuskegee, Ala., to further display and commemorate the heroic actions of the Tuskegee Airmen during World War II.

Against all odds, these brave men took an opportunity labeled as an experiment and excelled. They showed that with hard work, dedication and a passion to achieve a goal, any man - no matter his background - can do great things. The Tuskegee Airmen proved that bravery, valor, courage and skill aren't defined by a man's skin color, but by the size of his heart and will to fight.

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