The Tuskegee Airmen, WWII   Leave a comment


The Tuskegee Airmen (play /tʌsˈkɡ/)[1] is the popular name of a group of African American pilots who fought in World War II. Formally, they formed the 332nd Fighter Group and the 477th Bombardment Group of the U.S. Army Air Corps.

The Tuskegee Airmen were the first African-American military aviators in the United States armed forces. During World War II, African Americans in many U.S. states still were subject to the Jim Crow laws.[N 1] The American military was racially segregated, as was much of the federal government. The Tuskegee Airmen were subjected to racial discrimination, both within and outside the army. Despite these adversities, they trained and flew with distinction. Primarily made up of African Americans, there were also five Tuskegee Airmen of Haitian descent.

Although the 477th Bombardment Group “worked up” on North American B-25 Mitchell bombers, they never served in combat; the Tuskegee 332nd Fighter Group was the only operational unit, first sent overseas as part of Operation Torch, then seeing action in Sicily and Italy, before being deployed as bomber escorts in Europe, where they were particularly successful in virtually all their missions.[3]

The Tuskegee Airmen initially were equipped with Curtiss P-40 Warhawks fighter-bomber aircraft, briefly with Bell P-39 Airacobras (March 1944), later with Republic P-47 Thunderbolts (June–July 1944), and finally with the aircraft with which they became most commonly associated, the North American P-51 Mustang (July 1944). When the pilots of the 332nd Fighter Group painted the tails of their P-47s and later, P-51s, red, the nickname “Red Tails” was coined. Bomber crews applied a more effusive “Red-Tail Angels” sobriquet.[N 2][4]

 Origins

See also: Civilian Pilot Training Program

 Background

Before the Tuskegee Airmen, no African American had been a U.S. military pilot. In 1917, African American men had tried to become aerial observers, but were rejected.[5] African American Eugene Bullard served as one of the members of the Franco-American Lafayette Escadrille, but he was denied the opportunity to transfer to American military units as a pilot when the other American pilots in the unit were offered the chance. Instead, Bullard returned to infantry duty with the French.[6]

The racially motivated rejections of World War I African American recruits sparked over two decades of advocacy by African Americans who wished to enlist and train as military aviators. The effort was led by such prominent civil rights leaders as Walter White of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, labor union leader A. Philip Randolph, and Judge William H. Hastie. Finally, on 3 April 1939, Appropriations Bill Public Law 18 was passed by Congress containing an amendment designating funds for training African American pilots. The War Department managed to put the money into funds of civilian flight schools willing to train black Americans.[5]

War Department tradition and policy mandated the segregation of African Americans into separate military units staffed by white officers, as had been done previously with the 9th Cavalry, 10th Cavalry, 24th Infantry Regiment and 25th Infantry Regiment. When the appropriation of funds for aviation training created opportunities for pilot cadets, their numbers diminished the rosters of these older units.[7] A further series of legislative moves by the United States Congress in 1941 forced the Army Air Corps to form an all-black combat unit, despite the War Department’s reluctance.

Due to the restrictive nature of selection policies, the situation did not seem promising for African Americans since, in 1940, the U.S. Census Bureau reported there were only 124 African American pilots in the nation.[8] The exclusionary policies failed dramatically when the Air Corps received an abundance of applications from men who qualified, even under the restrictive requirements. Many of the applicants already had participated in the Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP), in which the historically black Tuskegee Institute had participated since 1939.[9]

Portrait of Tuskegee airman, Edward M. Thomas, by photographer, Toni Frissell, March 1945

 Testing

The U.S. Army Air Corps had established the Psychological Research Unit 1 at Maxwell Army Air Field, Montgomery, Alabama, and other units around the country for aviation cadet training, which included the identification, selection, education, and training of pilots, navigators, and bombardiers. Psychologists employed in these research studies and training programs used some of the first standardized tests to quantify IQ, dexterity and leadership qualities to select and train the best-suited personnel for the roles of bombardier, navigator, and pilot. The Air Corps determined that the existing programs would be used for all units, including all-black units. At Tuskegee, this effort continued with the selection and training of the Tuskegee Airmen.[citation needed] In an effort to subvert the unit before it could commence operations, the War Department set up a system to accept only those with a level of flight experience or higher education intended to exclude most applicants. This ensured that only the most able and intelligent were able to join.

 The First Lady’s flight

The budding flight program at Tuskegee received a publicity boost when First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt inspected it in March 1941, and subsequently flew with African American chief civilian instructor C. Alfred “Chief” Anderson. Anderson, who had been flying since 1929, and was responsible for training thousands of rookie pilots, took his prestigious passenger on a half-hour flight in a Waco biplane. After landing, she cheerfully announced, “Well, you can fly all right.”[10]

The subsequent brouhaha over the First Lady’s flight had such an impact it is often mistakenly cited as the start of the CPTP at Tuskegee, even though the program was already five months old. Eleanor Roosevelt used her position as a trustee of the Julius Rosenwald Fund to arrange a loan of $175,000 to purchase the land for Moton Field.[10]

 Formation

Major James A. Ellison returns the salute of Mac Ross, as he reviews the first class of Tuskegee cadets; flight line at U.S. Army Air Corps basic and advanced flying school, with Vultee BT-13 trainers in the background, Tuskegee, Alabama, 1941

On 19 March 1941, the 99th Pursuit Squadron [N 3] was activated at Chanute Field in Rantoul, Illinois.[11][12][N 4] A cadre of 271 enlisted men were trained at Chanute in aircraft ground support trades, beginning in July 1941; the skills being taught were so technical that setting up segregated classes was deemed impossible. This small number of enlisted men became the core of other black squadrons forming at Tuskegee and Maxwell Fields in Alabama.[13]

The Tuskegee program began officially in June 1941 with the 99th Pursuit Squadron at the Tuskegee Institute.[14][15][N 5] The unit consisted of 47 officers and 429 enlisted men,[17] and was backed by an entire service arm. After basic training at Moton Field, they were moved to the nearby Tuskegee Army Air Field, about 10 mi (16 km) to the west for conversion training onto operational types. Consequently, Tuskegee became the only Army installation performing all four phases of pilot training at a single location. Initial planning called for 500 personnel in residence at a time.[18] By mid-1942, over six times that many were stationed at Tuskegee, even though only two squadrons were training there.[19]

Tuskegee Army Airfield was a replica of already-existing airfields reserved for training white pilots, such as Maxwell Field, only 40 miles (64 km) distant.[20] With African American contractors McKissack and McKissack, Inc. in charge of the contract, 2,000 workmen from their company, the Alabama Works Progress Administration, and the U.S. Army built the airfield in only six months. The construction was budgeted at $1,663,057.[21] The airmen were placed under the command of Captain Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., one of only two black line officers then serving.

War poster featuring a Tuskegee Airman

During training, the 99th Fighter Squadron was commanded by white and Puerto Rican officers,[22] beginning with Major James Ellison. Ellison made great progress in organizing the construction of the facilities needed for the military program at Tuskegee. However, he was transferred on 12 January 1942, reputedly because of his insistence that his African American sentries and Military Police had police authority over local Caucasian civilians.[23]

His successor, Colonel Frederick von Kimble, then oversaw operations at the Tuskegee airfield. Contrary to new Army regulations, Kimble maintained segregation on the field in deference to local customs in the state of Alabama, a policy that was resented by the airmen.[20] Later that year, the Air Corps replaced Kimble. His replacement had been the director of instruction at Tuskegee Army Airfield, Major Noel F. Parrish.[24] Counter to the prevalent racism of the day, Parrish was fair and open-minded and petitioned Washington to allow the Tuskegee Airmen to serve in combat.[25]

The strict racial segregation the U.S. Army required gave way in the face of the requirements for complex training in technical vocations. Typical of the process was the development of separate African American flight surgeons to support the operations and training of the Tuskegee Airmen.[26] Before the development of this unit, no U.S. Army flight surgeons had been black. Training of African American men as aviation medical examiners was conducted through correspondence courses until 1943, when two black physicians were admitted to the U.S. Army School of Aviation Medicine at Randolph Field, Texas. This was one of the earliest racially integrated courses in the U.S. Army. Seventeen flight surgeons served with the Tuskegee Airmen from 1941 through 1949. At that time, the typical tour of duty for a U.S. Army flight surgeon was four years. Six of these physicians lived under field conditions during operations in North Africa, Sicily, and Italy. The chief flight surgeon to the Tuskegee Airmen was Vance H. Marchbanks, Jr., M.D., who was a childhood friend of Benjamin O. Davis, Jr.[26]

The accumulation of washed-out cadets at Tuskegee and the propensity of other commands to “dump” African American personnel on the post exacerbated the difficulties of administering Tuskegee. A shortage of jobs for them made these enlisted men a drag on Tuskegee’s housing and culinary departments.[27] Trained officers were also left idle, as the plan to shift African American officers into command slots stalled, and white officers not only continued to hold command, but were joined by additional white officers assigned to the post. One rationale behind the non-assignment of trained African American officers was stated by the commanding officer of the Army Air Forces, General Henry “Hap” Arnold: “Negro pilots cannot be used in our present Air Corps units since this would result in Negro officers serving over white enlisted men creating an impossible social situation.”[28]

 Combat assignment

The 99th was finally considered ready for combat duty by April 1943. It shipped out of Tuskegee on 2 April, bound for North Africa, where it would join the 33rd Fighter Group and its commander, Colonel William W. Momyer. Given little guidance from battle-experienced pilots, the 99th’s first combat mission was to attack the small strategic volcanic island of Pantelleria in the Mediterranean Sea to clear the sea lanes for the Allied invasion of Sicily in July 1943. The air assault on the island began on 30 May 1943. The 99th flew its first combat mission in June 1943. The surrender of the garrison of 11,121 Italians and 78 Germans[29] due to air attack was the first of its kind.[30]

Eight Tuskegee Airmen in front of a P-40 fighter aircraft

The assignment to a predominantly ground attack role prevented the 99th from engaging in air-to-air combat. The unit was later criticized for not shooting down enemy aircraft; Congressional hearings were held on this perceived failure, with the aim of disbanding the squadron. However, the 99th moved on to Sicily and received a Distinguished Unit Citation for its performance in combat.[citation needed]

Col. Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., commander of the Tuskegee Airmen 332nd Fighter Group, in front of his P-47 Thunderbolt in Sicily

By the spring of 1944, more graduates were ready for combat, and the all-black 332nd Fighter Group had been sent overseas with three fighter squadrons: The 100th, 301st and 302nd. Under the command of Colonel Davis, the squadrons were moved to mainland Italy, where the 99th Fighter Squadron, assigned to the group on 1 May 1944, joined them on 6 June at Ramitelli Airfield, near Termoli, on the Adriatic coast. From Ramitelli, the 332nd Fighter Group escorted Fifteenth Air Force heavy strategic bombing raids into Czechoslovakia, Austria, Hungary, Poland, and Germany.[citation needed]

Flying escort for heavy bombers, the 332nd earned an impressive combat record. The Allies called these airmen “Red Tails” or “Red-Tail Angels,” because of the distinctive crimson paint predominantly applied on the tail section of the unit’s aircraft.[4]

Pilots of the 332nd Fighter Group, “Tuskegee Airmen” at Ramitelli Airfield, Italy; from left to right, Lt. Dempsey W. Morgan, Lt. Carroll S. Woods, Lt. Robert H. Nelron, Jr., Captain Andrew D. Turner, and Lt. Clarence P. Lester

A B-25 bomb group, the 477th Bombardment Group, was forming in the U.S., but was not able to complete its training in time to see action. The 99th Fighter Squadron after its return to the United States became part of the 477th, redesignated the 477th Composite Group.[4]

Active air units

The 99th Pursuit Squadron and the 332nd Fighter Group were the only black air units that saw active combat during World War II. The 332nd, which was a combination of the 100th, the 301st, and the 302nd squadrons, first saw active combat in January 1944. The dive-bombing and strafing missions under Lieutenant Colonel Davis, Jr. were considered to be highly successful. Following a change in its mission to strategic bomber escort, the 99th was added to the 332nd in July 1944.[31][32]

In May 1942, the 99th Pursuit Squadron was renamed the 99th Fighter Squadron. It earned three Distinguished Unit Citations (DUC) during World War II. The DUCs were for operations at Pantelleria and Tunisia from May 30 – June 11, 1943, Monastery Hill near Cassino from May 12–14, 1944, and for successfully fighting off German jet aircraft on March 24, 1945. The mission was the longest bomber escort mission throughout the war.[33][34] The 332nd also flew missions in Sicily, Anzio, Normandy, the Rhineland, the Po Valley and Rome-Arno and others. Pilots of the 99th once set a record for destroying five enemy aircraft in less than four minutes.[31]

Individual pilots of the 332nd Fighter Group also earned approximately 1000 awards and decorations. Their missions took them to Rome-Arno, Normandy, Rhineland, Romania, Northern and Southern France, and the American Theater Campaigns. The 332nd first saw combat in February 1944. Throughout various engagements over the course of the war, the 332nd was credited with destroying at least: 112 airborne enemy aircraft, 150 aircraft on the ground, over 600 train cars, over 40 barges/boats, and a German Navy destroyer. The destruction of the Navy destroyer was the first such accomplishment of its time.[31][33] The ship concerned had been classified as a destroyer by the Italian Navy, before being converted down by the Germans into a torpedo boat. It was attacked on the 25th of June 1944. The German Navy decommissioned it on the 8th of November 1944, and finally scuttled it on the 5th of February 1945.[35]

Although never seeing combat, the 477th Bombardment Group was activated in 1943, and was not completely manned until March 1945. The 553rd Fighter Replacement Training Squadron was also activated in 1943. Its mission was to provide replacement pilots for the 332nd. Both units began training at Selfridge Field, Michigan, but because of an unhealthy racial atmosphere in the local area the 477th was moved to Godman Field, Kentucky, then to Freeman Field, Indiana, while the 553rd was moved to Walterboro, South Carolina, where it was eventually deactivated. Its members were transferred to form a squadron of the Air Base Group. From its inception, the 477th was plagued with problems. When activated the unit had no established cadre to break-in new pilots and had no navigators/bombardiers to man crews. Within one year the 477th had 38 squadron or unit moves. In June 1945, the 477th was redesignated as the 477th Composite Group.[31][36]

 Combat records

Instrument certificate for Tuskegee Airman Robert M. Glass, signed by Parrish

The Tuskegee Airmen compiled the following combat records:

Their operational aircraft were, in succession: P-40 Warhawk, Bell P-39 Airacobra, Republic P-47 Thunderbolt and North American P-51 Mustang fighter aircraft.[31]

 Tuskegee Airmen bomber units

 Formation

With African American fighter pilots being trained successfully, the Army Air Force now came under political pressure from the NAACP and other civil rights organizations to organize a bomber unit. There could be no defensible argument that the quota of 100 African American pilots in training at one time,[38] or 200 per year out of a total of 60,000 American aviation cadets in annual training,[39] represented the service potential of 13 million African Americans.[N 6]

On 13 May 1943, the 616th Bombardment Squadron was established as the initial subordinate squadron of the 477th Bombardment Group. The squadron was activated on 1 July 1943, only to be deactivated on 15 August 1943.[27] By September 1943, the number of washed-out cadets on base had surged to 286, with few of them working.[40] In January 1944, the 477th Bombardment Group was reactivated. At the time, the usual training cycle for a bombardment group took three to four months.[41] The 477th would eventually contain four medium bomber squadrons. Slated to comprise 1,200 officers and enlisted men, the unit would operate 60 North American B-25 Mitchell bombers. [N 7] The 477th would go on to encompass three more bomber squadrons–the 617th Bombardment Squadron, the 618th Bombardment Squadron, and the 619th Bombardment Squadron.[43] The 477th was anticipated to be ready for action in November 1944.[44]

The home field for the 477th was Selfridge Field, located outside Detroit, however, other bases would be used for various types of training courses. Twin-engine pilot training began at Tuskegee while transition to multi-engine pilot training was at Mather Field, California. Some ground crews trained at Mather before rotating to Inglewood, California. Gunners learned to shoot at Eglin Field, Florida. Bombers-navigators learned their trades at Hondo Army Air Field and Midland Field, Texas, or at Roswell, New Mexico. Training of the new African American crewmen also took place at Sioux Falls, South Dakota; Lincoln, Nebraska and Scott Field, Belleville, Illinois. Once trained, the air and ground crews would be spliced into a working unit at Selfridge.[45][46]

Command difficulties

The new group’s first Commanding Officer was Colonel Robert Selway. Like his ranking officer, Major General Frank O’Driscoll Hunter from Georgia, he was a racial segregationist. Hunter was blunt about it, saying such things as, “…racial friction will occur if colored and white pilots are trained together.” He backed Selway’s violations of Army Regulation 210-10, which forbade segregation of air base facilities. They segregated base facilities so thoroughly they even drew a line in the base theater and ordered separate seating by races. When the audience sat in random patterns as part of “Operation Checkerboard”, the movie was halted to make men return to segregated seating.[47] African American officers petitioned base Commanding Officer William Boyd for access to the only officer’s club on base. Lieutenant Milton Henry entered the club and personally demanded his club rights; he was court-martialled for this, and discharged.

Subsequently, Colonel Boyd denied club rights to African Americans although General Hunter stepped in and promised a separate but equal club would be built for black airmen.[48] The 477th was transferred to Godman Field, Kentucky before the club was built. They had spent five months at Selfridge but found themselves on a base a fraction of Selfridge’s size, with no air-to-ground gunnery range, and deteriorating runways that were too short for B-25 landings. Colonel Selway took on the second role of Commanding Officer of Godman Field. In that capacity, he ceded Godman Field’s officer club to African American airmen. Caucasian officers used the whites-only clubs at nearby Fort Knox, much to the displeasure of African American officers.[49]

Another irritant was a professional one for African American officers. They observed a steady flow of white officers through the command positions of the group and squadrons; these officers stayed just long enough to be “promotable” before transferring out at their new rank. This seemed to take about four months. In an extreme example, 22 year old Robert Mattern was promoted to captain, transferred into squadron command in the 477th days later, and left a month later as a major. He was replaced by another Caucasian officer. Meanwhile, no Tuskegee Airmen held command.[50]

On 15 March 1945,[51] the 477th was transferred to Freeman Field, on the verge of Seymour, Indiana. The white population of Freeman Field was 250 officers and 600 enlisted men. Superimposed on it were 400 African American officers and 2,500 enlisted men of the 477th and its associated units. Freeman Field had a firing range, usable runways, and other amenities useful for training. African American airmen would work in proximity with white ones; both would live in a public housing project adjacent to the base. Colonel Selway turned the non-commissioned officers out of their club and turned it into a second officers club. He then classified all white personnel as cadre, and all African Americans as trainees. One officers club became the cadre’s club. The old Non-Commissioned Officers Club, promptly sarcastically dubbed “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, became the trainee’s officers club. At least four of the trainees had flown combat in Europe as fighter pilots, and had about four years in service. Four others had completed training as pilots, bombardiers and navigators, and may have been the only triply qualified officers in the entire Air Corps. Several of the Tuskegee Airmen had logged over 900 flight hours by this time. Nevertheless, by Colonel Selway’s fiat, they were trainees.[51][52]

Off-base was no better; many businesses in Seymour would not serve African Americans. A local laundry would not wash their clothes, yet willingly laundered those of captured German soldiers.[51]

In early April 1945, the 118th Base Unit transferred in from Godman Field; its African American personnel held orders that specified they were base cadre, not trainees. On 5 April, officers of the 477th peaceably tried to enter the whites-only Officer’s Club. Selway had been tipped off by a phone call, and had the assistant provost marshal and base billeting manager stationed at the door to refuse the 477th officers entry. The latter, a major, ordered them to leave, and took their names as a means of arresting them when they refused. It was the beginning of the Freeman Field Mutiny.[53]

In the wake of the Freeman Field Mutiny, the 616th and 619th were disbanded and the returned 99th Fighter Squadron assigned to the 477th on 22 June 1945; it was renamed the 477th Composite Wing as a result. On 1 July 1945, Colonel Robert Selway was relieved of the Group’s command; he was replaced by Colonel Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. A complete sweep of Selway’s white staff followed, with all vacated jobs filled by African American officers. The war ended before the 477th Composite Group could get into action. The 618th Bombardment Squadron was disbanded on 8 October 1945. On 13 March 1946, the two-squadron group, supported by the 602nd Engineer Squadron (later renamed 602nd Air Engineer Squadron), the 118th Base Unit, and a band, moved to its final station, Lockbourne Field. The 617th Bombardment Squadron and the 99th Fighter Squadron disbanded on 1 July 1947, ending the 477th Composite Group. It would be reorganized as the 332nd Fighter Wing.[54

Posted February 17, 2012 by pennylibertygbow in Military

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