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US apartheid (or 'segregation' as they preferred to call it)

Capt. Benjamin Oliver Davis, Jr., of Washington, D.C., climbing into an Advanced Trainer, January 1942.

While the British engaged in war against Hitler, soldiers of all races from the Commonwealth fought alongside each other. This was not the case in the United States where apartheid was not very different from that found in South Africa after the war. This was particularly the case with aviation. Indeed, prior to Pearl Harbour, some senior US advisors actually believed that the Japanese would be unable to fly well 'due to their slitty eyes'!

In the 1930s, the U.S. military was a racially segregated institution, reflecting the legal and defacto segregation in much of the United States. In the army, African-American soldiers served in all-black units. In no cases were white men commanded by African-American officers. This was despite the fact that African-Americans had bravely served in the armed forces even before the American Revolution. They had fought beside the colonists in the War of Independence; African-American units had distinguished themselves in the War Between the States; and individual African-Americans had become aces during World War I and the Spanish Civil War. One ace, Eugene Bullard, fought with the French Foreign Legion during World War I because the U.S. Air Corps would not let him fly.

The U.S. Army Air Corps dealt with the fact of American segregation by refusing to accept African-Americans into its ranks at all rather than create separate units or facilities. The Corps also did not have to face the issue of African-American officers perhaps commanding white enlisted men, which might have occurred since Army Air Corps pilots were all officers. So in 1939, when the United States was gearing up to fight another world war, there were only 125 licensed African-American pilots in the country because they did not have the opportunity to learn to fly in the military and private flying lessons were too expensive for most to afford.

Original Tuskegee Airmen

The Air Corps’ refusal to allow African-Americans to join its ranks ended on October 9, 1940, when the War Department, at the urging of President Franklin Roosevelt, who wished to guarantee the support of African-Americans in the next presidential election, issued a statement declaring that "Negroes are being given aviation training as pilots, mechanics, and technical specialists." (In 1940, African-Americans in the northern part of the United States could vote. Few African-Americans in southern states voted before passage of civil rights legislation in the 1960s.) This really did not mean that African-Americans would be trained equally with white airmen. Rather, the Air Corps created an Aviation Squadrons (Separate) unit and, in most cases, assigned its men the most menial and degrading tasks.

Army Air Corps cadets reporting to Captain Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., commandant of cadets, September 1941.

In 1941 though, at the urging of the African-American press and with the support of the Roosevelt administration, a segregated fighter unit with openings for 429 enlisted men and 47 pilots was announced. The pilots would come from the segregated Civilian Pilot Training Program and be trained at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. On July 19, 1941, 13 students, among them West Point graduate Captain Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., who was also son of the first African-American brigadier general, were inducted into the program. During the next four years, Tuskegee trained almost a thousand military pilots.

After graduation in March 1942, the pilots, nicknamed the Tuskegee Airman, became the 99th Fighter Squadron with newly promoted Colonel Davis in command. The unit was forced to wait a year for deployment because no white commander wanted to accept the unit into his operations. Finally the Airmen were attached to the 33rd Fighter Group, Tactical Air Force and sent to North Africa. On the troop transport ship to Africa, Colonel Davis was placed in charge of all the troops on the ship. Since the ship also had white troops, this was the first time an African-American officer had commanded white soldiers.

Upon their arrival in Morocco, the unit received training on new Curtiss P-40L Warhawk pursuit aircraft from former Flying Tiger Lt. Col. Philip Cochran, who spent 24 hours a day with his students, moving in with them and teaching them combat tactics. The new pilots were grateful for his knowledge of aerial combat and when they joined Colonel William Momyer’s 33rd Fighter Group in May, they felt ready to fight.

On June 2, 1943, the Airmen had their first sortie when lieutenants Charles B. Hall and William Campbell went on a ground-strafing mission on the Italian island of Pantelleria. Sightings of enemy aircraft were rare, and the 99th did not have its first victory until Lt. Hall downed a German Focke-Wulf FW 109 on July 2. Allied officers General Dwight Eisenhower, Lt. Gen. Carl Spaatz, and Maj. Gen Jimmy Doolittle visited to offer their congratulations. Home front newspapers, even in the Deep South, trumpeted the success of the Tuskegee Airmen.

The Airmen continued to cover the Allied invasion of Italy. But they did not have another confirmed kill until the following January, a statistic that upset Colonel Momyer, who reported in September that the 99th lacked discipline, teamwork, and "the aggressiveness and daring for combat that are necessary to be a first class fighting organization." U.S. Army Air Force (USAAF) Chief General Henry "Hap" Arnold investigated the criticisms and found that the 99th had been assigned far from the invasion front, well away from enemy aircraft. It was also a new and inexperienced unit, led by equally inexperienced commanders, unlike novice white flyers who could rely on the experience of veteran leaders. Debate over Momyer’s criticism ended in March 1944 when the USAAF Statistical Control Division reported that from August 1943 to January 1944, the Airmen performed as well as the other P-40 squadrons in the area. Arnold allowed the matter to drop.

In October 1943, the 99th was assigned to Colonel Earl Bates’ 79th Fighter Group that was supporting the invasion of Italy. Bates considered his new unit part of his team, a fact supported by an observer from the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP), who reported "total obliteration of consciousness of differences of skin color among both white and Negro fliers of the 79th Group." Squadrons were mixed for combat and training missions. The 99th gained experience and confidence. And on January 27, 1944, the unit had its second kill in support of the Army’s amphibious landings at Anzio, the first landing in Italy. It boasted eight kills that day and soon the victories began to mount.

As the unit approached its first year in action, it learned that was being transferred to the 332nd Fighter Group. The 332nd was composed of four African-American squadrons that had been formed after the pioneer Tuskegee group, all under the command of Colonel Davis. At first, the members of the 99th felt that their new assignment would be less challenging both because of their race and the new pilots’ inexperience, but before long, their new squadron began to see more combat. Assigned to bomber escort with the 15th Air Force, it escorted the bombers on missions around Italy, flew on the raids to the Axis oil refineries in Ploesti, Romania, and strafed German troops retreating from Greece. It established a reputation for protecting its bombers. The pilots always followed Col. Davis’ orders: "Your job is to protect the bombers and not chase enemy aircraft for personal glory." The Germans called the 332nd Schwartze Vogrl Menshen (black birdmen) and began to fear seeing a plane with its distinctive red tail—the mark of the Airmen.

On March 24, 1945, the 332nd went on the longest mission flown by the 15th Air Force, to the Daimler-Benz tank works in Berlin. On this mission, it downed three Messerschmitt Me-262 jet fighters. The group received a Distinguished Unit Citation for its performance that day.

Meanwhile, back in the States, an African-American bomber group, the 447th, was being formed at Tuskegee. It was made up of new pilots and experienced veterans rotated home from Italy. The men completed training in January of 1944 but never saw combat because, despite the reputation of the 332nd, white commanders still refused to accept an African-American unit.

The 332nd continued to fly until the end of the war. It flew more than 1,500 sorties, and counted 111 kills (plus one destroyer sunk using a plane’s machine gun). Its members received 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses. But their most important achievement was never losing a single bomber to enemy aircraft--the only escort unit with that record.

At the end of the war, the Tuskegee Airmen returned to an America that was as segregated as the one they had left. Some of the veterans became leaders in the fight for desegregation, both military and civilian. Within their own community, they offered pride and encouragement, and to the white community, they offered an example of the equality of men. The Air Force became desegregated in April of 1948. Unfortunately, the rest of the nation would take much longer.