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The Tuskegee Airmen were a flying unit of the United States Army Air Forces. The first group of African American fighter pilots, these servicemen all trained at Tuskegee Army Air Field in Tuskegee, Alabama. Serving in the European theater during World War II, they collectively formed the 99th Pursuit Squadron and eventually would help pave the way for racial integration throughout the U.S. Armed Forces.

In 1941, amid widespread racial discrimination and official segregation policies, the first all-black squadron of fighter pilots was formed, largely at the urging of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, an ardent supporter of the effort, met the 99th squadron and thereafter corresponded with many of the pilots over the years. Prior to the squadron's formation, African Americans had largely been restricted to more menial positions within the Armed Forces. As recently as 1925, studies conducted at the Army War College had alleged that African Americans were ill-suited to serve in combat or to fly planes. Even at the behest of President Roosevelt and with the official acceptance of African Americans into the Air Force, widespread opinion within the Armed Forces was regularly leveled against the squadron's success. However, at the launch of the project, known initially as the "Tuskegee Experiment," African American pilots from around the country came to train as the Tuskegee Airmen. Their renown gradually spread, and when the squadron painted the tails of their planes red, they inherited a new nickname: the "Red Tails."

At Tuskegee Army Air Field, the airmen trained under Noel F. Parrish at an otherwise segregated air force base. On September 2, 1941, Captain Benjamin O. Davis Jr. became the first African American to pilot a plane as a U.S. Air Force officer. During combat, Davis would lead the squadron in long-range bomber escort missions over Nazi Germany as well as missions over North Africa and Italy. In total, 996 airmen became pilots, bombardiers, and navigators for the squadron. More than 10,000 black men and women served as support personnel. Four hundred fifty pilots served in overseas combat in Europe, North Africa and the Mediterranean. Of these, 66 aviators died in combat and 33 were taken as prisoners of war. Altogether, the airmen had the lowest loss record of any squadron in the European Theater of Operations.

During their service, the Tuskegee Airmen flew P-39 Air cobras, Curtiss P-40 Warhawks, P-47 Thunderbolts, and P-51 Mustangs. The Thunderbolt, nicknamed "The Jug" for its heavy nose, was notoriously difficult to pilot. During World War II, the squadron completed more than 15,000 sorties and 1,500 individual missions. In the process, they downed more than 100 enemy aircraft as well as an Italian destroyer loaded as a German torpedo boat. While rumors persist that the airmen "never lost a bomber," this legend has actually been debunked. In response to the myth, Tuskegee Airman Bill Holloman has said: "The Tuskegee story is about pilots who rose above adversity and discrimination and opened a door once closed to black America, not about whether their record is perfect." The squadron's outstanding record in combat helped combat the prejudices that prior to the squadron's formation had become an institutionalized part of the U.S. Armed Forces policy.

By the end of the war, the Tuskegee Airmen had received at least three Distinguished Unit Citations, 14 Bronze Stars, 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses, Legions of Merit, and the Red Star of Yugoslavia. The exact number of Purple Hearts awarded to the Tuskegee airmen is unknown, with estimates ranging between eight and 60. Perhaps even more importantly than the medals and awards, following the legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen, the U.S. Armed Forces officially integrated its servicemen. President Harry Truman signed an executive order for integration on July 26, 1948. The order went into effect in 1949, making the U.S. Air Force the first branch of the U.S. military to officially integrate and overturn a legacy of racial segregation. In 2007, the Tuskegee Airmen were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, conferred by President George W. Bush.

 


 

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