The first African-American U.S. fighter pilots not only destroyed Nazi planes but also shattered racial stereotype.
By the beginning of World War II, African-Americans had fought in the United States’ wars since the American Revolution. During the Civil War, Indian Wars, Spanish-American War and World War I, they served with distinction, and some received the country’s highest valor award, the Medal of Honor. Yet many Americans of that era – including most military leaders – were guilty of egregious racial stereotyping that caused them to believe African-Americans were incapable of becoming military pilots. During World War II, Tuskegee Airmen proved the doubters wrong while forging a superb combat record in the skies over Europe.
Tuskegee Airmen got their name from the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, where the War Department established a training program for African-American pilots in 1941. Nearly 1,000 black pilots and hundreds of ground crewmen were trained during World War II, eventually forming two units: 332d Fighter Group and 447th Bombardment Group. Although Tuskegee Airmen pilots flew P-39, P- 40 and P-47 fighter planes during the war, they are most closely associated with P-51 Mustangs, whose tails they painted red, leading to their “Red Tails” nickname.
Beginning in mid-1943, 450 Tuskegee Airmen pilots served in overseas combat in 332d Fighter Group, flying 15,533 combat sorties. Forty percent of the pilots became casualties: 66 were killed during combat, 84 died in training or non-combat missions, and 32 were captured after being shot down. Against these losses, 332d Fighter Group’s pilots shot down 112 enemy aircraft, including three German Me-262 jet fighters in a single mission (March 24, 1945). Tuskegee Airmen also wreaked havoc in a ground attack role, destroying 150 planes (and damaging another 148), nearly 1,000 trains/railway cars and motor vehicles, and 40 barges and boats (including a German destroyer/torpedo boat).
Yet Tuskegee Airmen pilots gained their greatest fame flying bomber escort missions. They flew hundreds of such missions for 12th and 15th U.S. Army Air Forces, forging an enviable record while earning the lasting gratitude of the bomber crews they protected. Of the 179 escort missions 332d Fighter Group flew for 15th Air Force, its pilots lost bombers to German fighters on only seven of the outings. In fact, they lost a total of only 25 bombers, while other fighter groups lost an average of 46.
Tuskegee Airmen built an outstanding combat record that shattered racial stereotypes and firmly established their claim as some of history’s greatest warriors.
Jerry D. Morelock, PhD, “Armchair General” Editor in Chief
Originally published in the March 2013 issue of Armchair General.