World War II was a war unlike any other before or after it. Slowly warfare began to shift itself away from the trenches and into mobile combat operations on air, land, and sea. The technological advancement was stark. However, there was far more to it than simple mechanics of war machines and weapons when it came to advancement. The concept of African American service members was not a new one, but for those who sought to serve their nation in the skies it was a new world.

The first African American warfighters of regular enlisted showed up as early as 1863 during the Civil War. Numerous freemen were enlisted to provide limited assistance in combat and sentry duties. Notable examples included the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment which was charged with leading a frontal assault on Fort Wagner; the battle depicted during the climax of the movie Glory. Other units such as the 108th U.S. Colored Infantry Regiment provided sentry duty at locations such as Rock Island where they guarded Confederate POWs.

In 1917, Eugene Bullard became the first African American combat pilot when he joined the French Air Service during World War I. Bullard, among many others, was not allowed to join the Army Air Service during the war. Following the war, an increased interest in civilian pilot programs led to many private citizens acquiring pilot’s licenses. The gateway to the sky opened for many. In fact, it was through this revelation that organizations such as the Civil Air Patrol (CAP) trace their origins. However, other major services also trace their lineage to this phenomenon, specifically the Womens Auxiliary Service Pilots and the Tuskegee Airmen.

In 1939, Tuskegee University in Alabama joined the Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP). As the Army Air Corps (USAAC) began to increase its Table of Distribution & Allowances (TDA) for Pilots, it also began to emphasize the importance of acquiring the best and brightest. This was enforced across all the USAAC. However, whereas many units were screened once, the airmen at Tuskegee were double and sometimes triple checked due to Jim Crow era laws. Because of this, these group of young men were in many cases some of the most elite airmen in the Corps.

It was not until a 29 MAR 1941 flight that the group gained positive notoriety, specifically from First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. In a flight with civilian instructor Charles Anderson Sr., she proclaimed “You can fly alright!” Subsequently, Roosevelt arranged a grant of $175,000 for the construction of Moton Field. Just a week before this, the 99th Pursuit Squadron had been formed in Rantoul, Illinois without any pilots. It was transferred to Tuskegee in June but did not gain its first pilots until August. Moton Field served as the training site for pilots that were then moved to Tuskegee Army Air Field. The unit was combat ready by April 1943.

Around the same time that the 99th was formed, the 332nd Fighter Group was also established. The 447th Bomber Group would follow in 1943. Both Groups were primarily staffed by African Americans. Likewise, the primary space of deployment was across North Africa and Southern Europe, with units gaining distinguished credits especially in the North African and Sicily Campaigns. The units were outfitted with standard aircraft relative to World War II and were not shortened on supply or repair, including P-40’s, -47’s, and -51’s. Despite the formation of the 447th Bomber Group in 1943, it was never used in combat actions despite heavy pressure from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Tuskegee Airmen aircraft were painted with a signature red tail by their flight crews. Other locations of red included the note and wingtips. The unique color scheme led them to acquire many names from “Red Tails” to “Red Angels.” Modern T-1 trainers of the 99th continue to use the red tail paint scheme on their aircraft today.

Just under 1,000 pilots were trained at Tuskegee with approximately 350 being deployed overseas for combat. The casualty ratio of pilots to loss was approximately 10 percent. Three Distinguished Unit Citations were awarded along with 96 Distinguished Flying Crosses, 14 Bronze Stars (plus at least one known Silver), over 700 Air Medals, and at least 60 Purple Hearts.

The airmen at Tuskegee continued to provide influence in aviation for African Americans well after their time in their respective units. Individuals such as GEN David James Jr. went on to become the first four-star General Officer in the U.S. Air Force (USAF). Others went on to become chairmen of non-profit organizations to provide assistance to aspiring young African American aviators. Today the 99th Flying Training Squadron provides training to new USAF pilots, while the 332nd Expeditionary Fighter Group maintains multiple Air National Guard units in the Central U.S.


[1] Terkel, Studs. American Dreams: Lost and Found. Pantheon Books, New York City, New York. 1980. pp359-360.

[2] Maye, J. Todd. Freedom Flyers: The Tuskegee Airmen of World War II. Oxford University Press, New York City, New York. 2010. pp52-54.

[3] National Museum of the U.S. Air Force. Fact Sheets: Escort Excellence. Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. Archived. 2012.

[4] Bucholtz, Chris; Laurier, Jim. 332nd Fighter Group - Tuskegee Airmen. Osprey Publishing, Oxford, United Kingdom. 2007.

[5] Ross, Robert A. Lonely Eagles: The Story of America's Black Air Force in World War II. Tuskegee Airmen, Inc, Los Angeles Chapter. 1980.

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