The Tuskegee Airmen Part 1

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The Tuskegee Airmen
Part I 
 
Major William T. Mattison
 

"They rose from adversity through competence, courage, commitment and capacity to serve America on silver wings, and to set a standard few will transcend." (Inception on the bronze statue of a Black World War 11 fighter pilot located at the Air Force Academy in Colorado). As early as 1917, Black youths had tried to enlist in the Air Service of the Signal Corps as Observers. Four years later Black leaders of the time urged the War Department to establish Negro Army unit Air Force Reserve units. The War Department's reply would be a constant barrier to Black aspirations throughout the 192Os and 1930s. The Department claimed that it was "impossible to establish such units because no Negro officer had previously held commissions in the Air Service and that since no Negro Air Units existed, there was no justification for the appointment of Negro's as flying cadets." 

This reply in part could be traced to studies like the one written by the Army War College which evaluated Blacks in World War I. The 1925 study stated that the Black man was physically unqualified for combat duty; was by nature subservient, mentally inferior, and believed himself to be inferior to the White man; was susceptible to the influence of crowd psychology; could not control himself in the face of danger; and did not have the initiative and resourcefulness of the White man.

It would not be until July 19, 1941 that the actual formation of a special unit, known as the 99th Pursuit Squadron took hold, and not until August 25 of the same year that the first class of cadets were given their initial flying instructions. That first class comprised 12 cadets and one military officer, and included: Captain Benjamin O. Davis Jr., John C. Anderson Jr., Charles Brown, Theodore Brown, Marion Carter, Lemuel R. Custis, Charles DeBow, Fredrick H. Moore, Ulysses S. Pannell, George S. Roberts, William Slade, Mac Ross and Rodrick Williams.

 

All 13 members of this first class had four-year college degrees, including Captain Davis who had graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1936. Towards October of 1941, cadets were transferred from the Primary Air Field to the Army Air Field, both located in Tuskegee, Alabama, to begin flying. That secondary air field would he the training ground for all of the Black air units. Of that first class only five (Davis, Custis, DeBow, Roberts, and Ross) completed training and received their wings and respective commissions on March 7, 1942. A total of 926 Amy Air Force pilots graduated From Tuskegee Army Flying School, with the last class receiving their wings on, June 29, 1946.

 

Despite being trained and ready for combat service, the 99th would not see initial action in the European theater until, June of l943. The 99th's first combat sorties came over the Sicilian Island of Pantelleria and their first "kill" came a month later. Their initial assignments were in Morocco, North Africa, Sicily and Italy. The 99th squadron, led by now Lt. Colonel Davis Jr., later teamed up with three other Black Fighter squadrons (the 100th, the 301st and the 302nd) to form the 332nd Fighter Group in July 1944.

During the war, the 332nd had devise roles, including attacking enemy installations and troop concentrations, engaging in air combat in the skies of northern Italy and providing bomber escort missions for the Fifteenth Air Force, earning two distinctions along the way They were called the "Red Tails" for the distinctive tail marking on their P-47 Thunderbolt aircraft, and the bomber escort took pride in the fact that they did not lose a single bomber to enemy hostilities. Black military pilots flew more than 15,000 combat sorties and destroyed or damaged 4O9 enemy aircraft, and over 950 units of ground transportation, during their service in the European theatre.

They were called the "Schwartze Vogelmenschen" or Black Airmen, by their German adversaries, who both feared and respected them. Examples of their abilities to fight in the air came on many occasions, including the following: On June 9, 1944, the men of the 332nd. before they were joined by the 99th, scored their initial kills on the first of a series of 200 bomber escort missions. That day, Colonel Davis lead a group of thirty nine P-47s on a escort mission of B-24s to targets in Munich, Germany. The group engaged the enemy near Udine, Italy as a formation of German Me 109s made a diving attack on the bombers.

Charles B. Hall   

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