- James Houser
February 19, 1942 - Founding of the Tuskegee Airmen
Updated: Jun 1, 2021
February 19, 1942.* On this day, a new Army Air Force unit is founded in the United States - the 100th Fighter Squadron. But this unit is unlike the hundreds of other units being raised for World War II. This squadron - home base Tuskegee, Alabama - is one of the first four all-black units of the Air Force, and it and its pilots will have a storied career. Last Black History Month post, guys: the Tuskegee Airmen.
The Tuskegee Program began in 1941 with the founding of a small training unit in Tuskegee, Alabama. Since the military was still segregated, this program - much like the rest of the African-American servicemen of World War II - was viewed skeptically by the political and military elite of the United States. General "Hap" Arnold, Chief of the Army Air Force, claimed that "Negro pilots cannot be used in our present Air Corps units since this would result in Negro officers serving over white enlisted men creating an impossible social situation." The original cadre of 42 officers and 429 enlisted men stood up at Tuskegee in June 1941, and quickly began training both pilots and ground crews. Their commander was then-Captain Benjamin O. Davis, one of only two black officers in the Army Air Forces at the time.
By the time of the 100th Squadron's establishment, the commander at Tuskegee had already been relieved for sticking up for his airmen, who faced racial discrimination by local white police and businesses. His eventual replacement, Colonel Noel Parrish, not only faced down Alabama authorities but forced his base to integrate its facilities as well as receive additional support from Washington. When the 100th was established on February 19, it was soon followed by two more squadrons. Soon four fighter squadrons of black pilots were training at Tuskegee.
The fight against racism within the Army didn't end there. The next step was actually getting the pilots to the frontlines. The Tuskegee Airmen were eager to go "over there" and fight the Germans, but the 100th and its sister squadrons - now making up the 332nd Fighter Group - didn't arrive in Italy until February 1944. Their new mission would be to escort American and British bombers to bomb Nazi-occupied Europe, in particular the Romanian oil fields in Ploesti - Hitler's last large supply of fuel for his panzers, aircraft and V-weapons.
For the last eighteen months of the Second World War, the Tuskegee Airmen built a legend. Nicknamed the "Red Tails" because of the distinctive insignia on the back of their P-51 Mustangs, the squadrons of the Tuskegee Airmen cut trails across Europe - the Germans called them the, um, "Black Birdmen." The 100th Fighter Squadron covered the American advance from Anzio that took Rome, it kept the skies clear over Normandy on D-Day and provided air cover during the great American offensives from France into Germany. Along with hundreds of other pilots, the 100th held their own with the rest of the Tuskegee Airmen. Over the most depraved racial regime in human history, men Hitler would have regarded subhuman helped deal the crippling blow to his Luftwaffe and his war industry.
On March 24, 1945, now-Colonel Benjamin O. Davis and 42 other P-51s escorted American heavy bombers to land the killing blow on the Daimler-Benz tank factory in Berlin. One of the most heavily defended sites in Germany, the factory had a full compliment of AA guns, Me-262 jet fighters, and Me-163 rocket fighters. Over Berlin, the bombers made their target; multiple fighter aces of the Tuskegee Airmen downed the tougher and more advanced 262s. For this action, the Tuskegee Airmen won the Distinguished Unit Citation.
The Tuskegee Airmen, of course, did not kill racism in the military on their own. Efforts continued throughout 1943 and 1944 to shut the unit down based on distortions and lies about their combat record until that record became impossible to ignore.
Almost more than any other unit, the Tuskegees convinced the American leadership and people that African-Americans were able and willing to not only fight for America, but fight well. In at least some part due to their example, the military would be desegregated by 1948.
Benjamin O. Davis, the fearless leader of the Tuskegee Airmen and the trailblazer for black servicemen and women in the Air Force, became the first black general in American history in 1960. By 1998, President Bill Clinton awarded him his first star. General Benjamin O. Davis, who passed away in 2002, was the final and truest signal to the United States Armed Forces that the days of neglect and segregation were over.
Black Americans had - and have - a long way to go, but Davis's personal triumph mattered. His achievement, and the achievement of the men he led, is one of the greatest breakthroughs in American history and can never be forgotten.
*The first Tuskegee squadron, the 99th Pursuit Squadron, was actually founded in June 1941, but I needed a date in February and these are my posts so I make the rules. I chose the 100th Squadron, which was founded on this date, and focused on its experience in World War II.
Book Recommendation: J. Todd Moye, Freedom Flyers: The Tuskegee Airmen of World War II (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).