Tuskegee Airmen, also known as the Red Tails, is the name given to a group of African-American pilots during World War II. The 99th Pursuit Squadron, they were part of the 332nd Fighter Group and the 447th Bombardment Group of the US Army Air Corps. The group was important because they were the first African-Americans trained for military aviation. They also had an impressive combat record. They destroyed more than 100 enemy aircraft and did not lose a single American bomber.
Up to 1940, African-Americans constituted 1.5 percent of the U.S. Army and Navy. According to laws that applied at the time, there had to be four African-American army regiments, but they were totally excluded from air forces. "The theory at the time was that we didn't have the knowledge or the ability or the dexterity to fly," Wilson Eagleson, a former Tuskegee Airman, has said. "That was like telling Michael Jordan he didn't have the dexterity."
In response to pressure from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), in January 1941, the formation of a black aviation pursuit squadron was announced. The new African-American pilots still had to use separate facilities in Tuskegee, Alabama, to train, since they were not allowed in the white airbase in Montgomery. Colonel Charles McGee, a Tuskegee Airman, explained in an interview that they were not allowed to leave the training field. "In those days, there was a great fear around the country that when you get large groups of blacks together, there's got to be trouble," Col McGee said. In total, 992 pilots trained in Tuskegee from 1941 to 1946 and almost half of them took part in operations over Europe and North Africa.
Conditions in Tuskegee were poor and life was difficult for the young pilots. They were mostly trained to perform difficult and dangerous pursuits and the surroundings to which they were confined helped them deal successfully with the challenge. The first unit, the 99th Pursuit Squadron, was sent to the Mediterranean in April 1943. Its first mission was on June 2 against the island of Pantelleria. Captain Charles B. Hall went down in history as the first African-American pilot ever to shoot down an enemy aircraft. The squadron, based in North Africa, provided air support for the invasion of Italy and took part in the air attack over Sicily. Despite their skills and contribution to successful missions, the Red Tails remained segregated from white troops. They even had to eat in the kitchen with the cooks.
One year later, the 332nd Fighter Group, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Benjamin O. Davis, Jr, was formed by joining 99th, 100th, 301th and 302nd Pursuit Squadrons. Another one, 447th Fighter Group, was in the process of preparation as the war came to an end in 1945. The 332nd Fighter Group engaged mainly in bomber escort but also destroyed enemy rail traffic, surveillance stations, vehicles and air-to-ground strafing missions. Overall, 150 Red Tails lost their lives during World War II, including 66 killed in action. Together they earned more than 744 Air Medals and Clusters, more than 100 Flying Crosses, 14 Bronze Stars, 8 Purple Hearts, a Silver Star, and a Legion of Merit. Many of the pilots continued their careers, taking part in the Korean (1950-1953) and Vietnam Wars (1955-1975).
The achievements of the Tuskegee Airmen remained obscure for decades but gained recognition from several books about their accomplishments published in the 1980s and 1990s. In 1995, HBO made a film about them, starring Laurence Fishburne and Allen Payne. Various museum exhibitions, news stories and websites have also contributed to the wide national and international recognition of the Tuskegee Airmen. The Motion Field, the Tuskegee area where pilots trained, was announced National Historic Site in 1998. In 2007 the Tuskegee Airmen received the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian award given by the Congress. Former President George H. W. Bush, whose father served together with 332nd, saluted the Tuskegee Airmen at the ceremony. "When America entered World War II, it might have been easy for them to do little for our country," President Bush said. "After all, the country didn't do much for them. Even the Nazis asked why African-American men would fight for a country that treated them so unfairly."