The winds of war raged across Europe and the Far East in 1939 -1940 and threatened to ultimately enslave America. The Emancipation Proclamation was 75 years old, yet Black people understood the ominous threat that bode ill for our nation. Despite the sacrifices and contributions of Negroes in building America, they were denied the opportunity to have a meaningful part in our nation’s preparation to defend itself at home and abroad. Due to harsh segregation and rigid social barriers, the doors to aviation, in particular, were tightly closed to African Americans. This was due, in large part, to an inaccurate and disparaging “Official Report” of the U. S. War Department in 1925 regarding the performance of Negroes during WW I. This highly biased report concluded that (1) Blacks were inferior to their white counterparts in every discipline, (2) they lacked the intestinal fortitude for battle and were unreliable under fire, and (3) they were incapable of possessing the necessary skills to operate and master the complex military equipment employed in combat. Needless to say, the “experts” and national leaders of that time chose to ignore that black men and women had performed admirably and courageously in every conflict and skirmish since the Revolutionary War.
It took an enormous effort by Black leaders, the NAACP, Urban League, the Black media, a few friends in U. S. Congress, and many others to overcome a myriad of hurdles before two laws were passed to allow Blacks to train in aviation: Their persistent efforts eventually led to the establishment of two programs: (1) The Civilian Pilot Training Act Program (CPTP) and (2) Public Law 18. These laws led to the establishment of programs at certain colleges and universities to instruct Negroes students to fly.
Tuskegee Institute (now University) was given prime status in 1940, since it was the largest of the Negro programs. Also, it was one of a few educational institutions to provide both flying and ground instruction at that time. The first aviation cadet class began in July 1941 and completed training nine months later in March 1942. Thirteen started in the first class. Five successfully completed the training; one of them was Captain Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., a West Point Academy graduate. The other four were commissioned second lieutenants, and all five received Army Air Corps silver pilot wings.
From 1942 through 1946, approximately 996 pilots graduated and received their commission and pilot wings. Black navigators, bombardiers and gunnery crews were trained at selected military bases elsewhere in the United States. Mechanics were trained at Chanute Air Base in Rantoul, Illinois until facilities were in place in 1942 at Tuskegee Army Air Field (TAAF). In all, more than 15,000 men and women participated in the “Tuskegee Experience”.
Four hundred and fifty of the pilots served overseas in either the 99th Pursuit Squadron (later the 99th Fighter Squadron) and the 332nd Fighter Group. These aviators flew over 15,000 sorties, destroyed or damaged over 400 enemy aircraft, destroyed over 1,000 military targets, and sunk an enemy destroyer. This record is unequalled by any other unit in the history of American combat. Sixty-six Tuskegee Airmen lost their lives and others spent time as prisoners of war. Their awards included a Legion of Merit, Silver Star, 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses, 744 Air Medals, 14 Bronze Stars, and 8 Purple Hearts.
THE 477TH BOMBARDMENT GROUP AND COMPOSITE WING
The 477th was the first Black squadron to be trained in multi-engine bombers and was initially stationed at Selfridge Field, near Detroit, Michigan. The racial strife at Selfridge caused the first documented demonstration by Black officers against harsh racial practices. The incident occurred when several Black officers attempted to enter the base Officer’s Club. To prevent interference by Black “agitators” from nearby Detroit, the 477th was soon moved to Godman Field, Kentucky. By late 1944 the 477th was able to conduct combat training; however, bad weather, poor equipment, and racist white officers and enlisted men were persistent hurdles that faced the Black airmen. On March 1, 1945, the unit was moved from Godman to Freeman Filed, Indiana. Racial friction, brought on by a racist commander, again led to the Black officer’s attempt to integrate the officer’s club. Before this incident was over, 101 Black officers had been arrested and charged with disobeying a “lawful” order. Once, again organizations throughout the nation (NAACP, newspapers, et.al.) came to the aid of the officers. The charges were eventually dropped, and all but three officers were released. The remaining three did not have their cases resolved until after the arrival of the new commander of the 477th, Col. B. O. Davis. Many of the returning 332nd pilots were assigned to the composite wing. The war in both Europe and the Pacific ended before those trained in the Mitchell B-25s were deployed for combat. Nevertheless, the contributions of the 477th helped open the door to desegregation of the USAF.
The success of Tuskegee Airmen proved to the American Public that African Americans, when given an opportunity, could become effective military leaders, pilots, and significant contributors to the nation's defense. Their story also reflects the struggle of African Americans in achieving equal rights that helped set the pattern for nonviolent direct action in the 1950s and 1960s. Thus the Tuskegee Experience provided a significant benchmark in the annals of American History.
TUSKEGEE AIRMEN, INC.
After WW II, thousands of those in the Tuskegee Experience returned to America to continue the struggle for freedom at home. These great Americans went on to become doctors, lawyers, educators, business persons, mayors, and other elected officials nationwide. They have continued to serve their families, communities, and the nation with the same dedication, determination, and passion for over 65 years.
In August 1972, the Tuskegee Airmen gathered in Detroit, Michigan and voted to establish a nation-wide organization with membership open to all supporters. They elected Lt. Col (Ret) John J. Suggs as "Commander" and authorized him to form committees and finalize the process. The organization was incorporated February 25, 1975 in the District of Columbia as a "veterans" organization.
In 1978, an organizational structure was adopted which replaced the Commander with a National President, and the Articles of Incorporation were amended to read: "Charitable and educational organization". The common goal in the early years was to increase membership, preserve the legacy and raise money for scholarships. In 1978, the Los Angeles Chapter organized the Tuskegee Airmen Scholarship Fund Board to provide leadership and direction to the scholarship effort. Currently, the National Scholarship Fund has assets in excess of $1.7 million and awards over $60,000.00 each year to deserving high school graduates.
In 1988, the Detroit Chapter formed the Tuskegee Airmen National Historical Museum Board to oversee the museum at Historic Fort Wayne in Detroit, Michigan. This facility provides a secure location where the memorabilia of the Tuskegee Airmen’s invaluable contribution to our nation can be safely preserved and attractively displayed. The Museum is host to over 12,000 visitors each year, predominately school groups.
In 1997, the National Headquarters opened in Arlington, Virginia. This facility served a growing membership of over 2,000 people in 48 chapters throughout the United States. The present day mission of Tuskegee Airmen, Inc. ® is to inspire young people to outstanding achievement and leadership in our democratic society through social and educational activities. To achieve this objective, the Airmen motivate, inspire and stimulate young people to study, sacrifice and attain self-sustaining status with marketable skills in the fields of aviation and aerospace. The officers, directors and board members of this federal tax-exempt organization serve without salary or fee.
The highlight of each year for the Airmen is the opportunity to gather for the TAI National Convention. Tuskegee Airmen are acutely aware of the importance of staying in touch with each other and staying in touch with their heritage. The convention site rotates between the three regions with a chapter volunteering to serve as host.
For additional information, see www.tuskegeeairmen.org