The Tuskegee Airmen in Combat

By Haulman, Daniel L. | Air Power History, Fall 2010 | Go to article overview

The Tuskegee Airmen in Combat


Haulman, Daniel L., Air Power History


[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

The 332d Fighter Group and its four elements, the 99th, 100th, 301st, and 302d Fighter Squadrons, were the only African-American organizations in the Army Air Forces to enter combat during World War II. They are more popularly called the "Tuskegee Airmen" because they trained at Tuskegee Institute's Moton Field and then at nearby Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama.

The first African-American combat unit in the Army Air Forces was the 99th Fighter Squadron. First activated at Chanute Field, Illinois, on March 22, 1941, it moved to Maxwell Field on November 5, and finally, on November 10, the unit relocated to Tuskegee Army Airfield, where it served until April 1943. Later that month, it deployed to North Africa and began flying tactical missions with the Twelfth Air Force in the Mediterranean Theater. Flying Curtiss P-40 fighter aircraft on strafing, patrol, and other tactical missions, the 99th moved to Sicily in July 1943, and then to the mainland of Italy in October of that year. It served with a series of white fighter groups, attached at various times to the 33d, the 324th, the 79th, and the 86th. Before the 99th Fighter Squadron joined the 332d Fighter Group, it had earned two Distinguished Unit Citations. One was for its missions over Sicily in June and July 1943, and one was for its missions over Cassino, Italy, on May 12-14, 1944. (1)

A second African-American flying unit, the 100th Fighter Squadron, was activated at Tuskegee on February 19, 1942, but it did not deploy to North Africa with the 99th; it stayed at Tuskegee. When the 332d Group, was activated at Tuskegee on October 13, the 100th Fighter Squadron was assigned to it, along with two new fighter squadrons, the 301st and 302d. After they completed training at Tuskegee, the group and its three squadrons moved to Selfridge Field, Michigan, on March 29, 1943, to Oscoda, Michigan, on April 12, and then back to Selfridge on July 9. On October 9, 1943, Col. Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., who had commanded the 99th Fighter Squadron in combat overseas, became commander of the 332d Fighter Group. In January 1944, the group and its three squadrons deployed to Italy, where the 99th was already serving. Like the 99th, the squadrons of the 332d Fighter Group first served directly under the Twelfth Air Force, primarily flying the Bell P-39 Airacobra on strafing, patrol, and other tactical missions, and attacking targets on the ground. At the end of May 1944, the 332d Fighter Group moved to Ramitelli Airfield, was reassigned from the Twelfth Air Force to the Fifteenth Air Force, and given the primary mission of escorting heavy bombers such as Boeing B-17s and Consolidated B-24s to their targets in southern, central, and eastern Europe. After transition to the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt, members of the 332d began flying missions for the Fifteenth Air Force in early June 1944. On June 25, 1944, eight P-47s, of the 332d, spotted an enemy warship as they patrolled over the Gulf of Venezia and the Gulf of Trieste. The P-47s strafed the ship until it exploded, and reported it sunk off Pirano. (2)

That was the day before the group received its first North American P-51 Mustang. The P-51 was faster and had a longer range than the P-47. Although the 99th Fighter Squadron was assigned to the 332nd Fighter Group on May 1, it remained attached to other groups (324th and 86th) until mid July, when it began flying fighter escort missions in P-51s with the 332d. By then, all the African-American units were serving together, all with the primary mission of escorting Fifteenth Air Force heavy bombers. The 332d was the only one of the seven fighter escort groups of the Fifteenth Air Force to have four squadrons. The others had three each. (3)

West Point graduate Colonel Benjamin Davis, who had earlier commanded the 99th Fighter Squadron, became the most important of the 332d Fighter Group commanders during World War II. He later became the first African-American general officer in the United States Air Force. …

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