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African-American Airmen Proved Mettle in World War II

By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Feb. 1, 2007 – African Americans were grounded in the U.S. military until the establishment in Alabama of a unique combat flight training program that began on the eve of America’s entry into World War II.

America was drawing nearer to fighting a global war with Axis powers Germany, Italy and Japan, and the U.S. Army Air Corps needed more pilots, bombardiers and navigators, as well as maintenance and other support personnel. In 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered the Air Corps to create an all-African American military flying unit.

Roosevelt’s wife, Eleanor, is said to have been instrumental in her husband’s decision that provided African Americans the opportunity to become military pilots.

The “Tuskegee Experiment” commenced in the spring of 1941 at the then-Tuskegee Institute at Tuskegee, Ala. Capt. Benjamin O. Davis Jr. became the first African American to fly a military aircraft solo as a U.S. Army Air Corps’ officer.

On March 7, 1942, the first group of African Americans to graduate from military flight school was inducted into the Air Corps. Promoted to lieutenant colonel, Davis assumed command of 99th Fighter Squadron on August 24, 1942

Almost 1,000 African American pilots were trained at Tuskegee until 1946. About 450 deployed overseas to Europe, and 150 airmen lost their lives in training or in combat.

While serving with the 332nd Fighter Group and its subordinate 99th, 100th, 301st and 302nd Fighter Squadrons, Tuskegee graduates flew more than 15,000 combat sorties during World War II, destroying about 500 enemy aircraft and a destroyer. And, the Tuskegee airmen never lost a bomber to the enemy during allied B-17 and B-24 bomber formation escort duties.

Tuskegee fliers also earned 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses, 744 Air Medals, 8 Purple Heart Medals and 14 Bronze Star Medals.

The U.S. Army Air Corps became the U.S. Air Force in 1947. Benjamin O. Davis Jr. would continue his military career after the war ended in 1945. In 1954, Davis was promoted to brigadier general, becoming the first African-American general officer in the U.S. Air Force.

Daniel “Chappie” James Jr. was another Tuskegee graduate who would achieve high rank in the Air Force. In September 1975, James became the first African-American officer in the history of the U.S. military to attain four stars, signifying full general rank.

The “Tuskegee Experiment” proved that African-American pilots could fly and fight as well as their white counterparts. And, the Tuskegee pilots’ wartime exploits played a key role in President Harry S. Truman’s 1948 decision to desegregate the U.S. military, which in turn opened up opportunities for all African Americans.

(Information for this article was compiled from a variety of military and civilian sources.)

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