Who Were They?

The Tuskegee Airmen were dedicated, determined young men who enlisted to become America’s first black military airmen, at a time when there were many people who thought that black men lacked intelligence, skill, and courage. Blacks from across the country who possessed the physical and mental qualifications were accepted as aviation cadets to be trained as pilots, navigators, or bombardiers. Most were college students or graduates. Enlisted members were trained to be aircraft and engine mechanics, armament specialists, radio repairmen, parachute riggers, control tower operators, policemen, administrative clerks and other specialists.

The black airmen who became pilots trained at Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama. From 1942 through 1946, 992 pilots graduated at TAAF. Four hundred and fifty of the pilots trained at TAAF served overseas.

The Group began overseas combat operations in Italy in February 1944, flying air patrols over Naples Harbor and the Mediterranean Sea. In April 1944, they began conducting long-range heavy bomber escort missions for the 15th Strategic Air Force. In July 1944, they became the only fighter group performing bomber escort missions in the 15th Air Force. They established a remarkable record of flying 200 of their 205 bomber escort missions without the loss of a single bomber to enemy aircraft. The 99th Fighter Squadron received two Presidential Unit Citations for outstanding tactical air support and aerial combat. The 332nd Fighter Group received the Presidential Unit Citation for its longest bomber escort mission to Berlin, Germany, on which it destroyed three German jets without losing any of the bombers or any of its own fighter aircraft to enemy aircraft.

These outstanding black airmen fought two wars – one against military forces overseas and one against racism at home. When black officers tried to enter the Freeman Field Officers’ Club in Indiana, against direct orders for them to stay out, one hundred and three officers were arrested and charged. The court martial proceedings were quickly dropped against all but three of the officers, who were eventually cleared.

After the war in Europe ended in 1945, black airmen returned to the United States and faced continued racism and bigotry despite their outstanding war record. Tuskegee Army Air Field continued to train new airmen until 1946, with women entering the program in several support fields. In 1948, President Harry Truman enacted Executive Order Number 9981, ordering equality of treatment and opportunity in all of the U.S. Armed Forces. This order, in time, led to the end of racial segregation in the military force, and it was also the first step toward racial integration in the United States.

Source: Who Were They?
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