On March 19, 1941, the U.S. War Department established the 99th Pursuit Squadron, which, along with a few other squadrons formed later, became better known as the Tuskegee Airmen. Consisting of America’s first Black military pilots, these units confronted racism at home in addition to the enemy abroad. Yet despite the extra obstacles, they would go on to compile an exemplary record in the Mediterranean and European theaters of World War II and pave the way for desegregation of the military.
Though African Americans had fought in every major U.S. conflict dating back to the Revolutionary War, they were traditionally confined to menial jobs and kept separated from white soldiers. As late as 1925, an Army War College report called them “a sub-species of the human family” that performed poorly as soldiers due to their cowardly, subservient, superstitious, amoral and mentally inferior nature.
Black advocacy groups and newspapers attempted to counter such pseudoscience. But as World War II approached, the military remained staunchly opposed both to integration and to putting Black men in positions of authority. In 1940, for example, U.S. Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall, who would later win the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on the Marshall Plan, remarked that now was “not the time for critical experiments, which would inevitably have a highly destructive effect on morale.” The navy and war secretaries agreed, with the latter writing that “leadership is not embedded in the Negro race yet” and that mixing white and Black troops would be “trouble.”
Not surprisingly, given the political climate, Black aviators were barred from flying in the U.S. Army Air Corps (the predecessor to the Air Force). In fact, they rarely entered any cockpits at all. Census records show that only a few dozen licensed black pilots lived in the entire United States prior to World War II. That number finally began to rise when several historically black colleges were included in the Civilian Pilot Training Program, which Congress created in 1939 to ensure that pilots would be available should war break out.
Even then, the Air Corps remained opposed to admitting Black recruits. But in 1940, Republican presidential nominee Wendell Willkie promised to desegregate the military, prompting his opponent, Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt, to authorize the enlistment of African American aviators, among other modest civil rights concessions aimed at keeping the Black vote. On January 16, 1941, it was then announced that an all-Black fighter pilot unit would be trained at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, a historically black college founded by Booker T. Washington.
'Tuskegee Airmen: Legacy of Courage' premieres Wednesday, February 10 at 8/7c. Watch a preview now.
The War Department officially established the 99th Pursuit Squadron (later renamed the 99th Fighter Squadron) on March 19, 1941, and it activated the unit three days later. Before the first cadets even arrived, the program got a publicity boost when First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was taken up in a plane by C. Alfred “Chief” Anderson, a Black aviation pioneer who served as the Tuskegee Institute’s chief flight instructor.
Nonetheless, many top military officials, including the war secretary, reportedly expected the Tuskegee experiment to fail. Local whites also expressed opposition, at one point nearly initiating a race riot following a tense confrontation with an armed Black military policeman. Meanwhile, about 100 whites signed a petition lamenting that the Tuskegee Army Air Field—which was built at great expense purely so that preexisting army air fields wouldn’t have to integrate—might cut off the “only outlet of expansion for white citizens of Tuskegee.”
Living primarily in primitive tents, the inaugural class of Tuskegee pilots studied such subjects as radio code, navigation and meteorology, while also taking to the air for more hands-on learning. Of the 13 original cadets, five made it graduation in March 1942, including Benjamin O. Davis Jr., who would eventually become the unit’s commander.
More graduations quickly followed, and the program was expanded to comprise not only the 99th Fighter Squadron, but also the 100th, 301st and 302nd fighter squadrons, which together made up the 332nd Fighter Group. (Also considered Tuskegee Airmen are the black bomber pilots of the 477th Bombardment Group, as well as all support personnel.)
Overall, 992 pilots completed the Tuskegee training program, nearly half of whom were then shipped overseas, where they gained fame for their unparalleled success at escorting bombers on long-range raids deep into Nazi-controlled territory. Flying some 1,600 missions and destroying over 260 enemy aircraft, the Tuskegee Airmen helped lay the foundation for President Harry S. Truman’s decision to desegregate the armed forces in 1948.
READ MORE: 6 Renowned Tuskegee Airmen
WATCH: 'Tuskegee Airmen' on HISTORY Vault