Red Tail Angels: The story of the Tuskegee Airmen

  • Published
  • By Master. Sgt. Mark Olsen
  • 108th Wing Public Affairs
  Prior to World War II, the situation for African-American aviators was even more grim than their counterparts in the other services.

  The Army Air Corps had completely barred blacks from their ranks while the other services assigned blacks only the most menial of duties. The basis for this decision was an Army War College report called The Use of Negro Manpower in War, which stated that blacks were unfit for combat duty.

  Civil rights organizations and the black press, combined with congressional legislation, successfully fought this position resulting in the formation of the 99th Pursuit Squadron based at the Tuskegee Institute, Ala., in June 1941.

  History would know them as the Tuskegee Airmen.

  The first class had 12 cadets and one student officer, Capt. Benjamin O. Davis Jr., who would later play a critical role in the 332nd Fighter Group.

  Class 42C earned their wings in March 1942 at the segregated Tuskegee Army Air Field becoming the nation's first black military pilots. Despite this, the unit did not receive deployment orders. After months of delays by the War Department, the 400-man 99th Fighter Squadron deployed to North Africa in April 1943. Eventually, the 99th became part of the 332nd Fighter Group, which was comprised of the 100th, 301st and 302nd African-American Fighter Squadrons based in Italy. The 332nd moved from Montecorvino Air Base near Salerno and Capodichino Air Field to their final base at Ramitelli Air Field near Ancona, where, under Davis' command, flew missions over Sicily, the Mediterranean, North Africa and eventually Germany where they flew combat and bomber escort missions.

  American bomber crews nicknamed the 332nd, the Red Tails or Red Tail Angels after the red tail markings on the vertical stabilizers of the unit's aircraft. The Luftwaffe called the Tuskegee Airmen, Der Schwarze Vogelmenschen, literally the Black Birdmen.

  One of the 332nd's most famous missions occurred on March 24, 1945. Davis, now a lieutenant colonel, led the Group in an escort mission of 5th Air Wing B-17 bombers on a 1,600-mile mission from Ramitelli, Italy, to attack the Daimler-Benz tank assembly plant near Berlin.

  During the mission, the 332nd was supposed to be relieved by another fighter unit prior to arriving at the target, when the unit didn't show up, the 332nd stayed with the B-17s. During the mission, in addition to protecting the bombers, the 332nd shot down three Messerschmitt Me 262 jet fighters and provided Army Intelligence with valuable tactical information on the aircraft. As a result, the 332nd was awarded a Distinguished Unit Citation for the mission.

  By war's end, the 332nd completed 1,578 combat missions, destroyed or damaged 400 enemy aircraft, sank an enemy destroyer and destroyed numerous enemy installations.

  By 1945, 992 pilots had trained at Tuskegee; 335 would be deployed, 66 were killed in action and 32 were shot down and became prisoners of war. They received numerous awards, including 96 Distinguished Flying Crosses, several Silver Stars, eight Purple Hearts, 14 Bronze Stars, 744 Air Medals, the Croix de Guerre and the Red Star of Yugoslavia. The 99th received two Distinguished Unit Citations. Davis, who in 1936, was the first African American to graduate from West Point Military Academy in 47 years, would later retire as an Air Force lieutenant general and the nation's second African American general officer.

  The 332nd was disbanded in 1949 with the implementation of President Harry S. Truman's Executive Order 9981, which ended racial discrimination in the military. The Airmen and aircraft were assigned to other units.

  In 2005, Tuskegee Airmen Lt. Cols. Lee Archer and Robert Ashby, along with Master Sgt. James Sheppard and Tech. Sgt. George Watson, flew to Balad, Iraq, to speak to active duty Airmen serving with the 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing. At the time of the visit, there were 100 Tuskegee Airmen still alive.

  "This group represents the linkage between the greatest generation of Airmen and the latest generation of Airmen," said Lt. Gen. Walter E. Buchanan III, commander, Ninth Air Force and U.S. Central Command Air Forces.