12 photos of the Tuskegee Airmen — the historic African-American World War II aviators who paved the way for the full integration of the US military

  • The Tuskegee Airmen were US military aviators who trained at Tuskegee Army Airfield in Alabama during World War II.
  • African-Americans, previously barred from flying with the US military, were segregated at Tuskegee.
  • Along with Tuskegee, African-American enlisted personnel were trained across the US, according to Daniel Haulman of the Air Force Historical Research Agency.
  • The pilots, navigators, bombardiers, maintainers, and others who graduated made history as some of the most respected units of the war.
  • They flew missions out of North Africa and Italy, providing air support for ground units and escorting bombers.


In 1941, the US military designated Tuskegee, Alabama, as the training ground for African-American pilots

Time Life Pictures/US Signal Corps/The LIFE picture collection/Getty ImagesTuskegee Airmen, as cadets, look at a flight map during a training class in 1942.

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

Afro American Newspapers/Gado/Getty ImagesA graduating class of Tuskegee Airmen during World War II.

Tuskegee continued training pilots, navigators, bombardiers, and other maintenance and support personnel


The first class of pilots graduated in March 1942.

Afro American Newspapers/Gado/Getty ImagesNewly commissioned pilots in their bomber jackets at Tuskegee Army Flying School.

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 beame the first African-American pilots in the 99th Pursuit Squadron.


The Tuskegee Airmen were highly successful during the war, escorting medium and heavy bombers on missions over Italy and Germany

US Army via Wikimedia CommonsCapt. Andrew D. Turner signals to his ground crew before taking off from his base in Italy to escort heavy bombers en route to enemy targets during World War II.

They also flew air-support missions for ground troops

PhotoQuest/Getty ImagesPilots with a P-51 Mustang Group from the 15th Air Force in Italy talk in the shadows of one of their aircraft, August 1944.

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

Buyenlarge/Getty ImagesTuskegee Airmen shown in Ramitelli, Italy, March 1945.

Originally flying out of Tunisia, the pilots later flew out of Sicily before eventually launching missions from mainland Italy

Buyenlarge/Getty ImagesTuskegee Airmen leave the parachute room in Ramitelli, Italy, 1945.

The 99th Fighter Squadron began flying missions from mainland Italy in September 1943

Hulton Archive/Getty ImagesMustang fighter group pilots at a mission briefing in Italy during World War II.

Despite numerous successes in combat, officials still tried to bar the African-American unit from further combat deployments.

National Archives via Wikimedia CommonsA US Army Air Force armorer with the 100th fighter squadron checks ammunition belts for the P-51 Mustang’s machine guns before it leaves for a mission against German targets in September 1944.

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.


Here are insignia for various squadrons on an AY-6 Texan aircraft during a 2012 ceremony honouring Tuskegee Airmen. The top emblem is for the 332nd Fighter Group. The unit insignia, from left to right, are for the 99th, 100th, 301st and 302nd Fighter Squadrons.


In September 2018, the Air Force flew a formation honouring past, present, and future Tuskegee Airmen.

Staff Sgt. Clayton Cupit/US Air ForceA commemorative P-51 Mustang, F-16 Fighting Falcon, and F-22 Raptor flying in formation to honour Tuskegee Airmen of past, present, and future, September 2018.

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