(From left) Lt. Dempsey W. Morgran, Lt. Carroll S. Woods, Lt. Robert H. Nelron Jr., Capt. Andrew D. Turner and Lt. Clarence P. Lester were pilots with the 332nd Fighter Group. The Airmen with the elite, all-black fighter group were better known as Tuskegee Airmen. (U.S. Air Force photo)
By Cheryl Chapman
As we join our U.S. armed forces in celebrating Black History Month, there’s no better time to revisit the obstacles and accomplishments of the Tuskeegee Airmen, the “Red Tail Angels.”
Until World War II in America, the U.S. military, like many people in our nation, often chose to judge people based on race rather than ability, education, leadership power, hard work or motivation. Black citizen determined to serve in the military thus faced two enemies at once, the Axis powers (Germany, Italy and Japan) and hardline domestic segregationists. One group of U.S. Army Air Corps flyers known as the Tuskegee Airmen faced down both.
There were few black aviators in the U.S. in the early 1900s. Those flying either trained abroad or taught themselves. By the late 1930s, though, attitudes were undergoing a slow sea change, and in 1940 the Army Air Corps began accepting black personnel to its flight programs, though initially under white officers. The next year it set up a training unit at Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute, a historically black university, segregating the new black flyers and their enlisted support in what was called “the Tuskegee Experiment.”
In July 1941, the 99th Pursuit Squadron was activated at Tuskegee, trained, assigned to a fighter group and dispatched in 1943 to North Africa to battle the Nazis. But the U.S. fighter group commander there didn’t want them. Only intervention by Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall kept the Airmen and their lumbering P-40 aircraft from being shipped back home without firing a shot.
The first mission of the 99th Pursuit Squadron, renamed the 99th Fighter Squadron in 1942, was to attack the Italian and German garrison on the tiny Mediterranean island of Pantelleria; the whole garrison, more than 11,000 men, surrendered. Next up: support for the invasion of Sicily, and a Distinguished Unit Citation to the 99th for its valor there. By 1944, speedy P-51 Mustangs had replaced the P-40s, and in July the 99th joined with the 100th, 301st and 302nd Fighter Squadrons of Tuskegee’s 332nd Pursuit Group, which shifted to Italy’s Ramitelli Airfield near Campomarino on the Adriatic Coast. By then the 332nd had painted their aircraft tails red, for easy identification and camaraderie, and its flyers were dubbed the “Red Tails.”
The Airmens’ job was to escort the slow, heavy bombers pounding targets in Southern Europe. Their black commander, Col. Benjamin O. Davis, ordered his Red Tails to stay with their bombers and protect them at all costs. The Red Tails lost 27 bombers to enemy fire compared with the 46 average bomber lost for the 15th Air Force’s other escort groups, and bomber pilots noticed the difference. They started asking for “Red Tail Angel” escorts.
The Red Tails won their third Distinguished Unit Citation in March 1945 for destroying German jet attackers during the longest 15th Air Force bomber escort mission of the war (the second citation was for fighting on May 1944 on near Italy’s Cassino).
Not all Angels made it home. Of the nearly 1,000 men earning their pilots’ wings at Tuskegee, 355 of those were fighter pilots in the Mediterranean theater. Eighty died; 31 were captured as prisoners of war. In addition to the pilots, another 14,000 black enlistees trained at Tuskegee and seven other states to support the Airmen and their aircraft.
The Axis defeat brought change worldwide; many black members of our military returned to the segregated nation but now with a certainty that things could be different. President Harry Truman agreed. In 1948 his executive order ended segregation in the military. Many returning Airmen devoted themselves to the domestic battle for civil rights and had distinguished careers.
As their wartime fight song’s chorus, chronicled by the CAF Red Tail Squadron, went, “We are the Heroes of the night — To hell with the Axis might — FIGHT! FIGHT! FIGHT! FIGHT! Fighting 99th.”
In 2007, Congress and President George W. Bush awarded the Tuskegee Airmen the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Congressional Gold Medal.