U.S. Racial Military Integration of World War II
The Tuskegee Airmen
by Brice Bowlds

Tuskegee Airmen Medium Bombardment Crew

        The United States Air Corps had an age-old policy of not allowing Negroes into the Air Force. Before the 1930's, civil rights for colored people was not of national interest. The Air Force couldn't be compelled to open their ranks on even a segregated basis. It wasn't until the mid-late 1930's that the Negroes could actually fight for their country in aerial battle. Eventually, the Air Corps grudgingly agreed to open up a training facility to train qualified Negro pilots for combat roles. These initial pioneers became known as the Tuskegee Airmen. Their efforts would lead to the first recognized integrated military arm of the United States, and began integration changes on a national scale.
        The exclusion policies toward Negroes first started in the Americas around 1639, about twenty years after the first blacks appeared in the English Colonies. Negroes have fought in every war the United States has ever been in, yet they were denied an honorable standing in the military until after World War II.
        There were several main issues that gained Black Americans admittance in to the Air Corps, including the emergence of Civil Rights as a national issue of importance and the growing aeronautical enthusiasm of Negro's around the country. These two things unified the bulk of "Black America behind one issue…gaining access to the Air Corps." Tuskegee Institute in Alabama was chosen to host the Black military training program. Training was supposed to start in late 1939, but it didn't start until 1941. The wait was worth it, for in March of 1942, five black Americans earned their wings, becoming American Military Aviators. Among this group of five was Lt. Benjamin O. Davis. Lt. Davis would later command the all black 99th Pursuit Squadron.

Lt. Benjamin O. Davis
Commander of the 332nd Fighter Group

        Davis and the 99th Pursuit Squadron were sent overseas to the North African Theater, where they were put on patrol duty. For the 99th Pursuit Squadron this was like a slap in the face. They were fighter pilots. After innumerable problems with moral, logistics, and bureaucratic bigotry, the 99th Pursuit Squadron was transferred to the front where they faced first rate German fighters. The 99th Pursuit Squadron was joined by three other black squadrons just out of training at Tuskegee, the 100th Pursuit Squadron, the 301st Pursuit Squadron, and the 302nd Pursuit Squadron. These four Squadrons were combined into the 332nd Fighter Group.
        After the 99th was deployed overseas, movements in the United States created the all black 477th Medium Bombardment Squadron. However, before the 477th Medium Bombardment Squadron could complete their training they had their wings clipped by a bigoted commanding officer who was outraged when they entered the all-White Pilots Officers Club. The Tuskegee Airmen protested and were put under house arrest. They were all eventually aquitted and set free to continue their military careers.

Tuskegee pilot's arrest made headline news

        They eventually completed their training in 1945 and were combined with the 332nd Fighter Group, creating the 477th Composite Group under the command of the competent Col. Benjamin O. Davis. They were scheduled to go overseas into the Pacific Theater to fight the Japanese, but the War ended on the deck of the U.S.S Missouri in late 1945.
        In Europe the 332nd Fighter Group assembled an enviable record. The group's main priority was the protection and subsequent safety of the bombers and their crews they escorted into enemy territory. Throughout the war the group never lost a single bomber they were escorting. This endeared them to the bomber crews who started calling them "The Red-tailed Angels" because of the distinctive crimson tail markings the Fighter Group used.

A formation of North American B-25s.

        Nearly a thousand black airmen were trained at the Tuskegee Institute. They flew approximately 15,553 sorties, and completed 1,578 missions protecting the 12th Tactical and 15th U.S. Army Air Force bomber squadrons over Italy and Germany. These courageous men came home with 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses, a Legion of Merit, 744 Air Medals, 8 Purple Hearts, two Soldier Medals, 14 Bronze Stars, and a Red Star of Yugoslavia. The Tuskegee Airmen destroyed or damaged over 409 German aircraft.
        From the first steps taken in the early months of 1942 toward racial equality in the Air Force, until the end of World War II, it was obvious that Black Americans had earned their right to be combat pilots. After 1942 there was no turning back. The Air Corps had been forced to open its ranks to Black Americans. Black pilots like Davis and his four comrades who earned their wings in that first Tuskegee class in 1942, along with the hundreds of others who followed them, showed a skeptical nation that they could fly and fight.
        After the war, in 1949, with the establishment of an independent United States Air Force, they became the first branch of the armed forces to fully implement President Harry S. Truman's Executive Order Number 9981 directing the desegregation of the Armed Services.

Executive Order 9981

WHEREAS it is essential that there be maintained in the armed services of the United States, the highest standards of democracy, with equality of treatment and opportunity for all those who serve in our country's defense:
NOW THEREFORE, by virtue of the authority vested in me as President of the United States, and as Commander in Chief of the armed services, it is hereby ordered as follows:

1. It is hereby declared to be the policy of the President that there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion or national origin. This policy shall be put into effect as rapidly as possible, having regard for the time required to effectuate any necessary changes without impairing efficiency or morale.

2. There shall be created in the National Military Establishment an advisory committee to be known as the President's committee of Equality of Treatment and Opportunity in the Armed Services, which shall be composed of seven members to be designated by the President.

3. The Committee is authorized on behalf of the President to examine to the rules, procedures and practices of the Armed Services in order to determine in what respect such rules, procedures and practices may be altered or improved with a view to carrying out the policy of this order. The Committee shall confer and advise the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of the Army, the Secretary of the Navy, the Secretary of the Air Force, and shall make such recommendations to the President and the said Secretaries as in the judgment of the Committee will effectuate the policy hereof.

4. All executive departments and agencies of the Federal Government are authorized and directed to cooperate with the Committee in its work, and to furnish the Committee such information or the services of such persons as the committee may require in the performance of its duties.

        Executive Order 9981 is a direct result of the bravery, tenacity, and accomplishments of the Tuskegee Airmen. The integration of the Armed Forces came relatively fast, and by the year 1950 saw the entire armed services completely racially integrated.
        Integration didn't end in the military. It started integration at a national scale as well. Although equal rights were a long ways off, the Tuskegee Airmen, the "Red-tailed Angels," took the initial leap toward national racial integration, by inspiring through the excellence of their combat performance, the Executive Order 9981, the most radical integration policy of its time.


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Picture Credits:

Picture #1 - ‘Tuskegee Airmen Medium Bombardment Crew." from: The Tuskegee Airmen Mutiny at Freemen Field

Picture #2 - "Lt. Benjamin O. Davis Commander of the 99th and the 332nd." from: The Tuskegee Airmen Mutiny at Freemen Field

Picture #3 - "Tuskegee pilot's arrest made headline news." from: The Tuskegee Airmen Mutiny at Freemen Field

Picture #4 - "A formation of North American B-25’s."from: The Tuskegee Airmen Mutiny at Freemen Field