The Tuskegee Airmen
1. The Tuskegee Airmen were significant in a way as they were an all-black fighter wing formed during World War II.
2. What makes them significant is, as stated above, that they were a World War II fighter wing that was made up primarily of African-Americans from the ground crew to its commanding officer. This was made possible by the constant lobbying of the influential National Association for the Advancement of the Colored People (NAACP) to get the War Department to start a program for the training and creation of an air force outfit that would be made up of black Americans (Moye 2). Essentially this is the 332nd Fighter Wing, made up of three squadrons – the 99th, 100th and 302nd Fighter Squadrons. The 301st Fighter Squadron would later join the unit after the 99th Fighter Squadron would return to the United States. The unit was commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Benjamin O. Davis Jr., the son of Brigadier General Benjamin Davis Sr. The younger Davis would eventually become a general himself during the postwar years. The unit’s reputation grew that they made it known through the bright red tails they sport in their mounts that is meant to strike fear among the enemy and relief among their allies (Moye 113-115, 173).
3. At the time, segregation was still the norm (in the South) and the administrations in Washington were reluctant to change anything at the time and it took considerable pressure to make this possible. This segregation also carried over to the military. In the navy, blacks were mainly enlisted men and were tasked to do menial jobs and were not assigned combat duties. The army formed all-black units but were led by white officers reminiscent of the units formed during the American civil war. But forming a fighter unit made up of blacks was a novelty then. During training, they were segregated from the white units, including the pilots; they were issued outdated aircraft such as the Curtiss P-40 Warhawk and Bell P-39 Airacobra when they saw combat against German fighters in more sophisticated Me109’s and Focke-Wulf 190’s. It was only in the latter part of the campaign that the 332nd was finally issued the superior P-51 Mustangs, the most advanced fighteer of the US Army Air Force inventory during the war (Moye 97, 238).
Furthermore, there was a time when the psychological competency of the unit was questioned owing to their seemingly poor performance. There were claims that blacks were inherently incapable of handling complex machinery like aircraft. It took the combined efforts of Colonel Davis and allies in Congress to overturn these findings and allow the continued existence of the 332nd, a decision they would not regret (Moye 20-26). Surprisingly, those who were shot down and became prisoners of war (POWs) by the Germans were treated well by their captors. It was also fortunate that German POW camps, not concentration camps, were run by regular German army or air force personnel, instead of the Shutzstaffel (SS) that ran the concentration camps (Moye 114)
4. Overall, the Tuskegee Airmen had distinguished themselves remarkably in combat. They had proven their detractors wrong over their claims that they were physically and mentally incapable of flying a plane and engaging in combat in it (Moye 20-26). Throughout its tour of duty, the 32nd served on the North African and Italian campaign. They shot down over a hundred German fighter aircraft, including the then top-of-the line Me262, the first operational jet fighter in the world and they have a chestful of medals to support these claims. Their combat role was mainly ground attack and bomber escort and they proudly claim that they never lost any of their charges to marauding German fighters at the cost of several of their own (Moye 121-122, 174). Even though their contributions were belatedly recognized, no one can deny that they did their part in helping secure victory in the Second World War.
Moye, J. Todd. Freedom Flyers: The Tuskegee Airmen of World War II. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.