On November 6, 1998, President Clinton signed legislation establishing Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site at Moton Field in Tuskegee, Alabama. This was an honor fairly won and long overdue. During World War II the Tuskegee Airmen, the name given to the patriots participating in the “Tuskegee Experiment,” did a truly remarkable thing when they overcame prejudice to not only become America’s first all-black American fighter squadron, but also compile an enviable combat record in war torn Europe. In a larger sense, the Tuskegee Airmen's achievements also help pave the way for full integration of the U.S. military.
Institutionalized racial segregation kept black pilots and crewmen out of military aircraft for many decades. In fact, it wasn’t until 1941 that African-Americans finally won the right to fly for the U.S. armed forces. When the go-ahead to form a black fighter squadron for the Army Air Corps finally came, it was only logical that the men should be mustered and trained at the Tuskegee Institute’s Moton Field in Alabama. The leading black college was well-suited to train military pilots and support personnel because the facilities and instructors were already in place. Tuskegee’s Civilian Pilot Training Program had graduated its first pilots in May 1940. An additional consideration was prevailingly warm and sunny weather conducive to year round flying.
Everyone who participated in the so-called "Tuskegee Experiment" – the instructors, staff, pilots, navigators, bombardiers, maintenance workers, and others – came to be known as “the Tuskegee Airmen.” Altogether, “the experiment to see if blacks could fly and fight” involved 994 pilots (plus “washouts”) and more than 15,000 support personnel.
The Tuskegee Airmen did remarkably well. They not only proved that black pilots, crew members, and support personnel could fly and maintain sophisticated combat aircraft, but also proved themselves in combat. Some 450 of the pilots served overseas.
The Tuskegee Airmen’s combat role is summarized as follows on the Legends of Tuskegee site.
The 99th Fighter Squadron was sent to North Africa in April 1943 for combat duty. They were joined by the 100th, 301st, and 302nd African-American fighter squadrons. Together these squadrons formed the 332nd fighter group. The transition from training to actual combat wasn't always smooth given the racial tensions of the time. However, the Airmen overcame the obstacles posed by segregation. Under the able command of Col. Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., the well-trained and highly motivated 332nd flew successful missions over Sicily, the Mediterranean, and North Africa.
Bomber crews named the Tuskegee Airmen "Red-Tail Angels" after the red tail markings on their aircraft. Also known as "Black" or "Lonely Eagles," the German Luftwaffe called them "Black Bird Men." The Tuskegee Airmen flew in the Mediterranean theater of operations. The Airmen completed 15,000 sorties in approximately 1,500 missions, destroyed over 260 enemy aircraft, sank one enemy destroyer, and demolished numerous enemy installations. Several aviators died in combat. The Tuskegee Airmen were awarded numerous high honors, including Distinguished Flying Crosses, Legions of Merit, Silver Stars, Purple Hearts, the Croix de Guerre, and the Red Star of Yugoslavia. A Distinguished Unit Citation was awarded to the 332nd Fighter Group for "outstanding performance and extraordinary heroism" in 1945.
The Tuskegee Airmen of the 477th Bombardment Group never saw action in WWII. However, they staged a peaceful, non-violent protest for equal rights at Freeman Field, Indiana, in April 1945.
The grand opening of Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site, which has a museum, some WW II-era planes, and interpretive programs at Moton Field, was held two weekends ago, just a few weeks shy of the tenth anniversary of the park’s authorization. Among those in attendance were Deputy Secretary of the Interior Lynn Scarlett, Alabama Governor Bob Riley, and of course, some Tuskegee Airmen and their families.
The grand opening of the new park came too late for most of the Tuskegee Airmen. Tuskegee Airmen, Incorprated. estimates that fewer than 140 pilots and perhaps 350 support personnel remain. Advancing age is reducing this elite membership at a rapid rate. Survivors do visit Tuskegee Institute and Moton Field from time to time to support park and university functions, address small groups by special arrangement, and assist park staff with historical research, such as granting interviews for oral histories.
Hearty Traveler congratulations and best wishes to Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site.