When WWII broke out, many young black men tried to join the Army Air Corps. They were turned down despite their high qualifications and excellent physical condition simply because they were black. Fortunately, Eleanor Roosevelt had a different opinion. Through her support and the work of men like Walter White and Robert Moton, a segregated flying training school was set up at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Thousands of young men applied for the program, but few were chosen. In training, the airmen were held to the highest standards. In fact, they were held to even higher standards due to the quotas to wash out as many as possible.
“The night before graduation all of us that made it through the program went to sleep, knowing we would pin our wings on the next day. The next morning however, we discovered that three or four members of our class had been pulled out and told they were not going to graduate.”
-Lt Col Alexander Jefferson Lt Col, USAF Ret.“Red Tail Captured, Red Tail Free”
After graduation, the initial class was not sent overseas to fight. The first class graduated from Tuskegee in March 1942, but didn’t deploy overseas until over a year later in April of ’43. This was because they wouldn’t integrate them into the white squadrons.
When the airmen entered combat they proved themselves over Nazi Germany. They had a remarkable record earning 150 distinguished flying crosses, 1 legion of merit, 1 silver star, 2 soldiers’ medals, 14 bronze stars, 8 purple hearts, 95 distinguished flying crosses, 744 air medals, and 3 presidential unit citations. They were credited with damaging or destroying 409 German aircraft, and a destroyer.
More important than the impressive record and medals was the reaction of the bomber crews they were escorting as the Red tailed angels earned their respect. They began to be requested for escort because of their reputation for defending the bombers. An example of the racism turning to respect occurred on August 12, 1943. On that day Tuskegee Airman Alexander Jefferson was shot down on his 19th mission. When he was interned at the German POW camp he immediately saw the racism from the American POW’s who had never seen a black pilot. However, a week later, a B-17 crewmember that had been shot down arrived at the camp.
“When he spotted me, he ran over, grabbed and hugged me, and
exclaimed, ‘You damn Red Tails are the best unit. If the Red Tails had been with us, we’d have made it back home! You guys saved our butts so many times!”
-Alexander Jefferson Lt Col, USAF Ret. “Red Tail Captured, Red Tail Free”
After that encounter, the reputation of the 332nd fighter group spread quickly throughout the POW camp.
Because the men of the 332 Fighter Group were segregated, they didn’t have replacements. Aircrew were supposed to rotate out after 25 combat missions. Many of the Tuskegee Airmen flew well over 100 missions before being relieved.
The Tuskegee Airmen helped win our victory in the fight against the Axis powers. In doing so, they also scored a victory in the fight over racism. In 1948 President Truman signed Executive Order 9981, desegregating the US military. This was in part due to the valor of the 332nd Fighter Group.
Taken from spiritoftuskegee.com/history