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The Black American Becomes a Fighting Airman

The Black American Becomes a Fighting Airman

Blacks had been attempting to gain entrance into the Army Air Corps since World War I. Senators Harry Swartz of Wyoming and Styles Bridges of New Hampshire were in the forefront of those in Congress who championed the cause of blacks to serve in the Air Corps.

Public Law 18, approved April 3, 1939, provided for the large-scale expansion of the Air Corps, with one section of the law authorizing the establishment of training programs in 6 black colleges to employ blacks in various areas of Air Corps support services. One such college was designated as a training center for black pilots and support personnel. Race and color were not the only barriers that blacks faced in pursuit of training in the Air Corps. The fact that there were no blacks to train them meant that there must be an element of racial integration if the program were to get started.

 
 

Student pilot being congratulated upon completion of primary flying course at Moton Field.

 

On Jan. 16, 1941, the War Department announced the formation of the 99th Pursuit Squadron, a black flying unit, to be trained at Tuskegee, Ala., the home of the Tuskegee Institute. That same month, the Secretary of the Army announced that, since there were no black officers in the Air Corps, 11 white officers would be assigned the duty of training 429 enlisted men and 47 officers as the first black military personnel in the flying school. Thus the "Lonely Eagles," as the black pilots were to call themselves, became a reality.

World War II Achievements: The 99th Pursuit Squadron, which was later named the 99th Fighter Squadron, fought throughout the Mediterranean and European Theaters and became a respected group of fighter pilots. Perhaps the unit's greatest claims to fame were: (l) as a bomber escort group that protected American bombers on their missions deep into Europe, the 332nd, which the 99th was assigned, never lost a bomber to enemy fighters; and (2) the unit was responsible for the formation of several other black Air Corps units, including fighter, bomber and composite squadrons and groups. In June 1943, Lt. Charles Hall of Indiana became the first member of the 99th to shoot down a German plane. He was personally congratulated by General Eisenhower who was in the area at the time.

 

From the inception of the 99th through the period that signaled the ending of World War II (1946), the following numbers of black combat flyers completed their training: 673 as single-engine pilots, 253 as twin-engine pilots, 58 as liaison field artillery of ficers, 132 as navigators.

The bulk of black flyers were in the 332nd Fighter Group, which consisted of the 99th Fighter Squadron; the 100th Fighter Squadron; the 301st Fighter Squadron; the 302nd Fighter Squadron; the 616th Bombardment Squadron; the 617th Bombardment Squadron; the 618th Bombardment Squadron and the 619th Bombardment Squadron. There was also the 477th Bombardment Group (medium), which consisted of the 99th Fighter Squadron; the 616th Bombardment Squadron; the 618th Bombardment Squadron and the 619th Bombardment Squadron.

   
   

Grading a primary student at Tuskegee on his solo landing.

 
 

The bombardment squadrons were equipped with B-26 aircraft and later with B-25s. Campaigns of the 332nd Fighter Squadron included Sicily; Naples-Foggia; Anzio; Rome-Arno; Normandy; Northern France; Southern France; North Apennines; Rhineland; Central Europe; Po Valley; Air Combat-EAME Theatre. Decorations of the 99th Fighter Squadron were Distinguished Unit Citations for Sicily, June-July, 1943; Cassino, May 12-14, 1944; Germany, March 24, 1945.

First Victory: Charles B. Hall, Brazil, Ind., became the first black fighter pilot to down an enemy aircraft July 21, 1943. While escorting B-25 bombers over Italy on his eighth mission, Hall spotted two Focke Wulf Fw190s approaching after the bombers had dropped their bombs on the enemy-held Castelvetrano airfield. He quickly maneuvered into the space between the bombers and fighters and turned inside the Fw190s. Hall fired a long burst at one of the Fw 190s as it turned left. After several hits, the aircraft fell off and crashed into the ground.

A class of twin-engine pilots in front in flight caps and single engine pilots in rear in helmets and goggles, Dec. 1943.

 
 

Hall earned the respect of his squadron mates with his boldness and flying skill. Before he ended his combat tour--flying P-40s--Hall downed a total of three enemy aircraft. He received the Distinguished Flying Cross for being the first black to shoot down a German aircraft. Tuskegee Airmen: More Than Just Pilots: Although the primary mission of the Tuskegee Airmen's first flying unit was flying, not all of the unit's assigned personnel were to be trained as pilots. Of the initial personnel to be trained at the Tuskegee training facility, 210 enlisted and 33 officers were assigned as pursuit squadron personnel; 160 enlisted and 10 officers were assigned to the base group detachment; 20 enlisted and two officers were assigned to weather and communications duties and 39 enlisted and two officers were assigned to services duties.

 
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