- The Tuskegee Airmen proved that Black aviators could fly combat missions just as well as whites.
- The Black pilots, navigators and airmen made history flying missions out of North Africa and Italy.
- They faced deep discrimination but their combat service contributed to the US military’s post-WWII desegration.
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In 1941, the US military designated Tuskegee, Alabama, as the training ground for African-American pilots.
Before 1940, Black Americans were barred from flying for the military due to the racist belief that they were “inferior” to whites.
The US Army published a study in 1925 called “The Use of Negro Manpower in War,” which was later used to support segregation.
Though they were finally able to become US military pilots, Black Americans trained in segregated facilities.
Tuskegee continued training pilots, navigators, bombardiers, and other maintenance and support personnel.
The first class of pilots graduated in March 1942.
The first five pilots to graduate from advanced flying training were Capt. Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. and 2nd Lts. Mac Ross, Lemuel R. Custis, Charles H. DeBow, Jr., and George S. Roberts.
Davis was assigned to the base; the others became the first African-American pilots in the 99th Pursuit Squadron.
The 99th Pursuit Squadron was an all African-American squadron, and these trailblazers would soon face Axis fighters in the European theatre and racist assessments by white officers that these new airmen were somehow less capable.
The Tuskegee Airmen were highly successful during the war, escorting medium and heavy bombers on missions over Italy and Germany.
They also flew air-support missions for ground troops.
Members of the 99th Fighter Squadron covered the landings of Allied troops in Licata and Anzio, Italy.
The 99th also provided cover for Allied naval vessels in the Mediterranean Sea.
Originally flying out of Tunisia, the pilots later flew out of Sicily before eventually launching missions from mainland Italy.
The 99th Fighter Squadron began flying missions from mainland Italy in September 1943.
Despite numerous successes in combat, officials still tried to bar the African-American unit from further combat deployments.
White officers in the unit’s chain of command wrote memorandums questioning the unit’s combat successes and recommended the 99th no longer be deployed for combat missions.
The War Department – now the US Department of Defence – kept the unit in combat but attached it to another command, and perceptions of the unit improved.