Tuskegee Airmen: The birth of a proud legacy

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Dilia Ayala
  • 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs
The 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing here traces its military lineage back to the 332nd Fighter Group, led by the famous Tuskegee Airmen in World War II. On April 24, past will meet present as the wing welcomes several original Tuskegee Airmen.

Visiting here will be former Lt. Cols. Alexander Jefferson and James Warren; retired Maj. George Boyd and former Staff Sgt. Phillip Broome, in addition to retired Lt. Gen. Russell Davis, president of the nonprofit Tuskegee Airmen, Inc.

"Having four of the original Tuskegee Airmen is a fantastic opportunity for our Airmen to hear about the legacy of the 332 AEW from the men who actually wrote the history," said Brig. Gen. Brian Bishop, 332nd AEW commander. 

"Hearing their stories and sharing our experiences with them solidifies the bond between our past and the future," General Bishop said.  

The Tuskegee Airmen group will meet Airmen from across the wing and visit several facilities, including the Air Force Theater Hospital. The highlight of their visit will be the 332nd AEW Dining-In on April 24. 

The Tuskegee Airmen were pioneers, the first of their kind, changing history and paving the way for African-Americans in the military.

The Tuskegee Airmen began their story in the 1940s in Tuskegee, Ala., when they became the subjects of a military experiment known as the Tuskegee Experience. The Tuskegee Institute, a small black college in Alabama, was charged with training  African-Americans to be military pilots and part of the air crew, ground crew or operations support staff.

The program initially began at Chanute Field, Ill., in March 1941 with the activation of the 99th Pursuit Squadron (later the 99th Fighter Squadron). The enlistees received training to become aircraft and engine mechanics, armament specialists, radio repairmen, parachute riggers, control tower operators, policemen, administrative clerks and all the other jobs needed to function as an entirely self-sufficient combat unit.

In July 1941, the first class of African-American aviation cadets began training at the newly created Tuskegee Army Flying School. On March 7, 1942, the first class of five pilots graduated and earned their wings. Overall, one of their biggest challenges throughout training was not the curriculum, rather the racial prejudice they experienced.

"The prevalent mindset of the time was such that many people had serious doubts that African-Americans would be able to perform at the same level in combat as their white counterparts," said Erika Reece, 332nd AEW historian.

"The men going through the training program at Tuskegee Field had to prove, time and again, that they were more than capable of the task set before them," Ms. Reece said. 

While some who participated in the Tuskegee Experience became pilots who flew a variety of bomber and fighter aircraft, other officers received training in operations, meteorology, intelligence, engineering and medicine.

After training, the Airmen were placed under the command of Lt. Col. Benjamin O. Davis Jr., a West Point graduate who would eventually become the Air Force's first African-American general officer. Led by Colonel Davis, some of the Tuskegee Airmen embarked on their journey into combat under the 99th FS.

The 99th FS trained for a year before finally being sent to North Africa in the spring of 1943, attached to the 33rd Fighter Group at Fordjouna, Tunisia. 

The 100th Pursuit Squadron, a second squadron located stateside, was activated in February 1942; and in October 1942, the 332nd FG was activated along with the 301st and 302nd Fighter Squadrons. The 332nd FG became the first all African-American group, and, while the 99th FS was flying combat missions in North Africa, continued to train.

In October 1943, Colonel Davis returned to the United States to assume command of the 332nd FG, becoming the first African-American to command a fighter group. In December of that year, the 332nd FG joined the fight in Europe.

Based out of Italy, the four squadrons (99th PS rejoined the group there) flew combat missions to include bomber escort, patrol, and strafe missions. Ultimately, the 332nd FG flew more than 15,000 sorties, with 261 aerial victories to their credit. 

"When compared to other fighter groups, the 332nd FG performed admirably, with their proportion of aerial victories and losses comparable to those of the white pilots,  proving that they were just as skilled as any other pilot in the Army Air Corps, regardless of their skin color," said Ms. Reece.

On April 30, 1945, the 332nd FG flew its last mission in World War II and on October 19, 1945, the group was inactivated. The legacy continues with the 332nd AEW.

"Because these heroes served our great nation in the way they did, we are able to serve our nation in so many different ways today," said General Bishop.

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