The Most Heroic Airmen of World War II
The Most Heroic Airmen of World War II

The Most Heroic Airmen of World War II

Khalid Elhassan - August 10, 2022

The Most Heroic Airmen of World War II
Tuskegee Airmen at an American airbase after a mission in the Mediterranean Theater of Operations. Wikimedia

10. The Tuskegee Airmen in Italy

On January 27th to 28th, 1944, the eight squadrons defending Anzio collectively shot down 32 German airplanes. The 99th claimed the highest score among them, with 13 victories. A week later, the 99th was assigned to the Twelfth Air Force and tasked with harbor protection, convoy escort, and armed reconnaissance missions. The 99th also provided close air support to the French and Polish armies during their assault on Monte Cassino in May, 1944. The unit distinguished itself in the latter engagement. It surprised and devastated German infantry massing for a counterattack, then bombed and strafed a nearby strongpoint, forcing its surrender to French colonial troops. That performance earned the 99th its second Distinguished Unit Citation.

In the meantime, the airbase in Tuskegee pumped 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 sent to Italy, where it was joined by the now-veteran 99th Pursuit Squadron in June, 1944. The Tuskegee Airmen initially flew P-40s, then were switched to Bell P-39 Airacobras in March , 1944, and 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 the city of Campomarino on the Adriatic coast, the 332nd Fighter Group was tasked with escorting the Fifteenth Air Force’s heavy bombers.

The Most Heroic Airmen of World War II
Colonel Benjamin O. Davis Jr., who led the Tuskegee Airmen in WWII, in front of a P-47 Thunderbolt. Flickr

9. The “Red Tails” Distinguish Themselves Over Berlin

For the rest of the war, the Tuskegee airmen accompanied the Fifteenth Air Force’s bombers on strategic raids. The black flyers flew cover on missions that targeted oil refineries, marshalling yards, factories, and airfields. The assignments 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 crews referred to the black flyers as “Red Tails” or “Red Tail Angels” because of the distinctive red paint the unit used on its 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 Mustangs of 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, and sent up clouds of Fw 190s, Me 163 Komet rocket fighters, plus 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 Fighter Group earned another Distinguished Unit Citations for its feats on that mission.

The Most Heroic Airmen of World War II
A WWII poster, featuring a Tuskegee Airman. Wikimedia

8. A Distinguished Combat Record That Proved the Doubters Wrong

In total, the all-black squadrons flew 1578 combat missions, including 179 bomber escort missions, and put up some pretty good statistics 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 ground attack runs, they destroyed 600 rail cars, plus 350 trucks and motor vehicles. At sea, they destroyed 40 boats and barges, plus a German torpedo boat.

Collectively, the Tuskegee Airmen earned three Distinguished Unit Citations (DUC). The first of them went to the 99th Pursuit Squadron for its performance in 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.

The Most Heroic Airmen of World War II
A red-tailed P-51 flown by Tuskegee Airmen of the 332nd Fighter Group. Wikimedia

7. The Tuskegee Airmen Turned Out to be Some of America’s Best Fighter Pilots

Despite the predictions of many that blacks were unsuited to fly combat, the Tuskegee Airmen turned out to be some of the best fighter pilots in the US Army Air Forces. During WWII, 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 perished in combat or accidents related thereto, another 12 didn’t make it through training and on non-combat missions, and 32 were taken as prisoners of war.

The numbers should have spoken for themselves. Predictably, though, they did little to silence racists who continued to attack the black airmen. 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.

The Most Heroic Airmen of World War II
Bruce Carr took off on a mission in an American P-51, and returned in a German Fw 190. Aviation Geek Club

6. The Ace Who Went Out on a Mission in an American Fighter, and Returned in a German One

WWII has no shortage of feats of heroism, derring-do, and intrepidity. However, few feats of heroic derring-do in that or any other conflict could match the intrepid escape of US Army Air Forces Second Lieutenant Bruce Ward Carr (1924 – 1998) from the Nazis’ clutches. An ace, Carr holds the distinction of being the only USAAF to leave on a combat mission in an American plane, and return to base in a German one. It happened in November, 1944, when Carr flew a strafing mission in P-51 fighter, but was shot down over enemy territory. He evaded capture, then stole an Fw 190 fighter from a German airfield and flew it back home.

Bruce Carr learned to fly in 1939, when he was only fifteen-years-old. In 1942, at age eighteen, he joined the USAAF’s Flying Cadet Training Program. He had the good fortune to get assigned to the same flight instructor who had taught him how to fly in 1939. Carr’s prior experience in the cockpit got him sent to Spence Airfield in Georgia, for an accelerated pilot training program in P-40 Warhawk fighters. After 240 hours in the air, he graduated as a flight officer in late August, 1943, and was sent for more specialized training.

The Most Heroic Airmen of World War II
A P-51 making a low level pass on a German airplane. Art Station

5. A Pilot Who Scared an Enemy to Death

After he graduated from Spence Airfield, Bruce Carr spent two months on more advanced training. It included qualifying in early models of the North American P-51 Mustang fighter, and its ground attack and dive-bombing variant, the A-36 Apache. He was sent to England in early 1944, and assigned to the 380th Fighter Squadron, 363rd Fighter Group, Ninth Air Force. Until then, Carr had never flown about 10,000 feet. When he took his P-51 to 30,000 feet, he was so impressed by its handling that he named his airplane “Angel’s Playmate“.

Carr notched his squadron’s first victory on March 8th, 1944, when he pursued a Messerschmitt Bf 109 near Berlin, and chased it to near-ground-level while he fired his guns. Only a single bullet hit the enemy fighter, but its pilot panicked. Unable to escape in his 109 from Carr’s P-51, the Luftwaffe airman tried to escape by abandoning his plane and parachuting to the ground. Unfortunately for the German, he jumped too close to the ground for his parachute to fully open.

The Most Heroic Airmen of World War II
Bruce Carr’s P-51, Angel’s Playmate. We the Armed

4. A Fresh Start With a New Squadron Was What This Fighter Pilot Needed to Become an Ace

Unfortunately for Bruce Carr, higher ups declined to give him credit for the downed Bf 109, arguing that it had crashed, rather than been shot down. He argued that his aggressive actions and pursuit had caused the crash. As he saw it, he had literally scared the enemy pilot to death, and caused him to kill himself. Carr was not only denied credit for his first victory, he was also labeled “overaggressive” by his superiors. So he was transferred to 353rd Squadron, 354th Fighter Group. It was his old outfit’s loss. In his new unit, Carr became not only an ace, but one of the 354th Fighter Group’s top aces. His rise to ace began on June 14th, 1944, when he was credited with a probable extermination of a Bf 109 over Normandy, France.

Three days later, on the 17th, he shared a victory, when he helped another pilot down an Fw 190. That August, Carr was commissioned a second lieutenant. On September 12th, 1944, Second Lieutenant Bruce Carr’s squadron strafed Ju-88 bombers on a German airfield. On the way back, his flight spotted more than thirty Fw 190s two thousand feet below them. The Americans pounced, and in just a few minutes, Carr personally shot down three enemy fighters – an aerial hat trick. He then escorted a fellow American pilot, whose airplane was badly damaged, back to base. His exploits that day earned Carr a Silver Star, America’s third-highest decoration for valor in combat.

The Most Heroic Airmen of World War II
An Fw 190D-9 cockpit. National Museum of the United States Air Force

3. An Ace Shot Down Deep in Enemy Territory

Bruce Carr became an ace on October 29th, 1944, when he shot down two more Bf 109s over Germany. Four days later, as he led his flight on a strafing run over a German airfield in Czechoslovakia, Carr’s P-51, Angel’s Playmate, was hit by antiaircraft fire. He bailed out from his fatally damaged plane, and parachuted safely to earth. Carr had managed to escape death in the air. Now he set out to escape Germans on the ground. Stranded deep in enemy territory, hundreds of miles from friendly lines, Carr evaded capture for several days. Eventually, cold, wet, exhausted, and starving, he decided to surrender. Aware that German airmen treated enemy airmen better than other POWs, Carr headed to a Luftwaffe airfield he had spotted.

He made it to the surrounding fence, and decided to hide in adjacent woods that night, then walk up to the front gate and surrender the following morning. Then Carr saw something that made him change his mind: German ground-crew fueling and performing maintenance on an Fw 190 near the edge of the runway, close to his hiding spot. When they were done, the Germans tightened the panels back on the plane and left, leaving it ready for combat the next day. That night, Carr worked up the nerve to sneak up to the enemy fighter, and climbed into its cockpit. He fought off sleep until dawn’s early light allowed him to inspect the instruments. Everything was labeled in German, but there were enough similarities between the German and American cockpits for Carr to guesstimate what did what.

The Most Heroic Airmen of World War II
That Fw 190 that Bruce Carr returned to base in. Large Scale Planes

2. A Harrowing Escape

Bruce Carr found the Fw 190’s starter lever, spent half an hour building up his courage, then pulled it. Nothing happened. German starters worked the other way around. He eventually pushed it forward, and the fighter’s BMW motor roared to life. Carr would not risk his escape by wasting any time taxing to and lining up on the runway. Pouring on full throttle, the American ace raced across a corner of the airfield, between two airplane hangars, then over the heads of sleepy and befuddled Germans.

When he reached Allied territory, ground troops opened fire on Carr’s Fw 190. To avoid friendly fire, he flew just above treetop level at 350 mph. After flying about 200 miles, he reached his airfield. Unable to deploy the landing gear or communicate via radio, Carr made a belly landing before his escape was ruined by his own airfield’s defenses blasting him out of the sky. Military police surrounded the crashed Fw 190, and refused to accept Carr’s word that he was American. It was finally sorted out when the group commander arrived, and identified his missing pilot. Carr is the only Allied pilot to fly off in a P-51, and return in an Fw 190.

The Most Heroic Airmen of World War II
Bruce Carr’s P-51 at the end of WWII. PME

1. After His Escape, Bruce Carr Joined the “Ace in a Day” Club

Bruce Carr was promoted to first lieutenant, and given a well-deserved leave. However, his wartime exploits were not over. On April 2nd, 1945, First Lieutenant Carr led three other American fighters on a reconnaissance mission, when they spotted sixty German fighters above them. Despite the 15:1 odds against his flight, the fighter ace immediately led an attack. Within minutes, Carr and his companions had downed fifteen Germans. Carr personally downed two Fw 190s, three Bf 109s, and damaged a sixth plane. His downing of five airplanes on that occasion made Carr the European Theater of Operations’ last “Ace in a Day”.

It also earned him a Distinguished Service Cross, the country’s second highest award for valor. By war’s end, Carr had flown 172 combat missions, scored fifteen confirmed air-to-air victories, several more unconfirmed victories, and numerous ground victories. He flew another 57 combat missions in the Korean War, and 286 more in Vietnam, earning a Legion of Merit and Three Distinguished Flying Crosses. He retired from the Air Force as a colonel in 1973, died of prostate cancer in 1998, and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

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Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

Air Force Magazine, February 1st, 1995 – Valor: Thanks, Luftwaffe

Aviation Geek Club – The Story of Bruce Carr, the P-51D Pilot Who Left on a Mission Flying a Mustang and Returned to Base Flying a Luftwaffe FW190

Aviation History Magazine, May, 2001 – WWII Ace Pappy Boyington Recalls War, Prison and Flying

Baron, Scott – Valor of Many Stripes: Remarkable Americans in World War II (2019)

Birch, David – Rolls Royce and the Mustang (1987)

Boyington, Gregory – Baa Baa Black Sheep (1958)

Darling, Kev – Combat Legend: P-51 Mustang (2005)

Detroit Free Press, May 18th, 2018 – Tuskegee Airman Honored 73 Years After Being Lynched in Austria

Encyclopedia Britannica – Tuskegee Airmen

Fortitudine, Bulletin of the Marine Corps Historical Program, Volume 35, Number 1, 2010 – Boyington and Combat Leadership

Gamble, Bruce – The Black Sheep: The Definitive Account of Marine Fighting Squadron 214 in World War II (1998)

Gamble, Bruce – Black Sheep One: The Life of Greggory ‘Pappy’ Boyington (2000)

History Collection – Underappreciated Heroes From History

History Net – Facts & Information About the Tuskegee Airmen

Moye, J. Todd – Freedom Flyers: The Tuskegee Airmen of World War II (2010)

Museum of Flight – Digital Collections: Louis E. Curdes Oral Interview

Pace, Steve – Mustang: Thoroughbred Stallion of the Air (2012)

Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum – Black Wings: African American Pioneer Aviators

Together We Served – Carr, Bruce W. (DSC), Colonel

Tuskegee Airmen Inc. – Tuskegee Airmen History

US Air Force Historical Division Research Studies Institute, Historical Study No. 136 – Development of the Long Range Escort Fighter

War History Online – The American WWII Ace Who Shot Down 7 German, 1 Italian, 1 Japanese, and 1 American Plane

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