13. Blacks Had to Fight Tooth and Nail For the Chance to Fight in the Air
African Americans tried to fly or serve as aerial observers in WWI, but were rejected. They included Eugene Bullard, a black pilot who flew for the French, because his own country’s air forces would not have him. Blacks were barred from US military aviation until pressure and successful lobbying by civil rights groups got Congress to pass a bill in 1939 to train black flyers.
The War Department and the military aviation establishment dragged their feet until 1941, when they finally gave in to pressure and created the 99th Pursuit Squadron. In accordance with the military’s racial segregation policies, it was an all-black outfit. Training for the unit’s 47 officers and 429 men began in Tuskegee, Alabama, in July of 1941. The first class of five black fighter pilots graduated in March of 1942. They included Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., the first black officer to solo an Army Air Corps plane. He was promoted to lieutenant colonel that July, and placed in command of the 99th.
12. Resistance From the Army Air Forces’ Head Honcho
Even as the Tuskegee training pipeline began pumping out black aviators, most were left to cool their heels, with no assignments, as plans to deploy them were slow-walked or resisted by higher-ups. The US Army Air Forces’ commanding general, Henry “Hap” Arnold, was among those who were lukewarm to place black officers in operational slots. As he put it: “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“.
It took more public pressure from civil rights groups and the black press, plus the personal intercession of FDR, before the military finally relented, and declared the 99th combat-ready in April of 1943. It was shipped to North Africa, where it flew P-40 Warhawks as operational fighters. Its first combat assignment was to participate in Operation Corkscrew, the air assault on the Italian island of Pantelleria, to clear the way for the upcoming Allied invasion of Sicily.
The 99th Pursuit Squadron flew from Tunis to carry out Operation Corkscrew, its first combat mission, on June 2nd, 1943. It was an auspicious start for the Tuskegee Airmen. Pantelleria, with a garrison of about 11,000 Italians and 100 Germans, surrendered on June 11th – the first time in history that a sizeable ground force surrendered because of aerial attacks.
However, the 99th was unfairly criticized by some white aviators – including their own commander – who accused the unit of “failure to â¦ display aggressiveness and daring for combat“, and called for its disbandment. The 99th was cleared by an Army Air Forces investigation, which revealed that the unit had performed just as well or better than other squadrons flying P-40s. Rather than disbandment, the close look at the black flyers’ performance ended up earning their squadron a Distinguished Unit Citation.
After distinguishing themselves in Operation Corkscrew, the men of 99th Pursuit Squadron flew in support of Operation Husky, the Allied invasion of Sicily, in July of 1944. Once airfields were secured in Sicily, the black flyers relocated from North Africa to that island, then flew in support of the invasion of Italy that September. The 99th was then tasked with providing close air support to the US 5th Army during some of its major operations, such as the capture of Foggia and its vital airfields, and the amphibious Anzio landings.
Attached to the 79th Fighter Group, the black flyers of the 99th saw significant action as one of eight fighter squadrons defending the Anzio beachhead from German aerial attacks. On January 27th to 28th, 1944, the eight squadrons defending Anzio collectively shot down 32 German airplanes, with the 99th claiming the highest score, with 13 kills.
A week after its exploits at Anzio, the 99th Pursuit Squadron was assigned to the Twelfth Air Force and tasked with protecting harbors, escorting convoys, and flying armed reconnaissance missions. The unit also provided close air support to the French and Polish armies during their assault on Monte Cassino in May of 1944. The 99th distinguished itself in the latter engagement, first surprising and devastating German infantry massing for a counterattack, then bombing and strafing a nearby strongpoint, forcing its surrender to French colonial troops. That performance earned the unit its second Distinguished Unit Citation.
In the meantime, the training base in Tuskegee kept pumping out more black aviators. By February, 1944, there were three all-black fighter squadrons ready and waiting in the US: the 100th, 301st, and 302nd. The units were shipped to North Africa, where they were combined into the all-black 332nd Fighter Group. The new group with its novice squadrons was then shipped to Italy, where it was joined by the now-veteran 99th Pursuit Squadron in June, 1944.
The Tuskegee Airmen switched from P-40s to Bell P-39 Airacobras in March of 1944, then upgraded to P-47 Thunderbolts in June. In July, 1944, they were finally equipped with the airplane with which they became most associated: the P-51 Mustang. Operating out of Ramitelli Airfield in Campomarino on the Adriatic coast, the 332nd Fighter Group was tasked with escorting the Fifteenth Air Force’s heavy bombers.
From then until the war’s end, the Tuskegee airmen accompanied bombers on strategic raids. The black flyers flew cover on missions targeting oil refineries, marshaling yards, factories, and airfields. The missions took them to Italy, Yugoslavia, Greece, Romania, Austria, France, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Germany, and Poland. The 332nd earned an impressive combat record while escorting the heavy bombers, whose aircrews referred to the black flyers as “Red Tails” or “Red Tail Angels” because of the distinctive red paint used on their airplanes’ tails. They earned another nickname from their opponents: “Schwarze Vogelmenschen“, or “Black Birdmen”.
The Tuskegee Airmen’s most famous mission, in which they went up against German Me 262 fighter jets, came on March 24th, 1945. That day, Colonel Benjamin O. Davis led 43 P-51s of the 332nd Fighter Group as bomber escorts for Fifteenth Air Force B-17s, who flew a 1600-mile round trip to raid a tank factory in Berlin.
The Luftwaffe put up stiff resistance, sending up FW 190s, Me 163 Komet rocket fighters, and 25 Me 262 jet fighters. Tuskegee Airmen Roscoe Brown, Charles Brantley, and Earl Lane, all managed to shoot down Luftwaffe jets over Berlin that day. The 332nd earned another Distinguished Unit Citation for its feats on that mission.
The black squadrons flew 1578 combat missions, including 179 bomber escort missions, and put up some pretty good stats while they were at it. They lost bombers on only seven missions, for a total of 27 airplanes, compared to an average loss of 46 bombers for other Fifteenth Air Force P-51 fighter groups. They shot down 112 enemy airplanes, destroyed another 150 on the ground, and damaged 148 more. On the ground, they destroyed 600 rail cars, plus 350 trucks and motor vehicles. They also destroyed 40 boats and barges, plus a German torpedo boat.
Collectively, the Tuskegee Airmen earned three Distinguished Unit Citations. The first went to the 99th Pursuit Squadron for its performance during the aerial assault on Pantelleria in June of 1943. The 99th earned another DUC in May of 1944, for actions at Monte Cassino. The third Distinguished Unit Citation went to the 332nd Fighter Group (including the 99th Pursuit Squadron plus two other black squadrons, the 100th and 301st) for action over Berlin in March of 1945.
5. A Rich Haul of Medals, and a High Price in Blood
The Tuskegee Airmen turned out to be some of the best fighter pilots in the US Army Air Forces, putting the lie to the predictions that blacks were unsuited to fly combat. During the conflict, Tuskegee Airmen earned 96 Distinguished Flying Crosses, a Silver Star, 14 Bronze Stars, 744 Air Medals, and 8 Purple Hearts.
Their accomplishments came at a price. Nearly a thousand pilots were trained at Tuskegee, of whom 355 were deployed overseas. 68 of them were killed in combat or accidents related thereto. Another 12 were killed in training and on non-combat missions, and 32 were taken as prisoners of war.
The numbers might have spoken for themselves, but predictably, they did little to silence racists who continued to attack America’s black aviators. Nonetheless, after the US military was finally desegregated in 1948, the veteran black pilots blossomed in the newly formed United States Air Force, and found themselves in high demand.
The 332nd Fighter Group was deactivated in 1949, as part of the Air Force’s plan to achieve racial integration. As a last hurrah, shortly before deactivation, Tuskegee Airmen of the 332nd Fighter Group won first place in the US Annual Gunnery Meet – a competition that included shooting aerial targets, strafing ground targets, and dropping bombs.
Medgar Wiley Evers (1925 – 1963) was a native of Decatur, Mississippi, who grew up and attended school in the days of Jim Crow. Racist laws required him to walk 12 miles every day to a dilapidated segregated school for blacks, rather than the better-funded school closer to his home that was reserved for white students.
After graduating high school, Evers was inducted into the US Army in 1943 and sent to the European Theater of Operations. There, he fought in the Normandy Campaign, and served throughout the remainder of the war in France and Germany, before being honorably discharged at the war’s end as a sergeant.
2. Fighting For Freedom Overseas, While Deprived of Freedom at Home
Despite risking his life to free others from a racist tyranny overseas, Medgar Evers returned after war’s end to a racial tyranny at home that denied him basic freedom and equality because of the color of his skin. He became a civil rights activist, and protested the racism of his era and area by organizing demonstrations and drawing attention to the grave injustices stemming from Jim Crow laws.
He also organized boycotts of companies that practiced discrimination, sought to end segregation in public places, and strove to integrate state-funded schools. He applied to the segregated University of Mississippi Law School in 1954, and when his application was rejected, he fought in the courts. His case contributed to the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision outlawing segregation in public schools that year. He would go on to play an instrumental role in desegregating Mississippi’s public schools.
Medgar Evers worked to overcome the disenfranchisement of blacks in Mississippi by organizing voter registration drives. He also organized boycotts, such as that of gas stations that denied blacks the use of their restrooms. Protesting injustice and rocking the boat has seldom been popular, and in late May, 1963, a Molotov cocktail was thrown into Evers’ garage. A week later, somebody tried to run him over as he left the NAACP office in Jackson, Mississippi. A week after, on June 12th, 1963, Evers was shot to death on his driveway by a KKK member.
As a World War II veteran, Evers was buried with military honors in Arlington National Cemetery, but he was not honored by the justice system. Despite the Klansman’s fingerprints on the murder weapon, and notwithstanding that he had publicly boasted of the murder, all-white juries twice deadlocked in 1964 and failed to reach a verdict. Evers’ killer remained free until 1994, when a third trial, this time before a racially mixed jury, finally secured a murder conviction.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading