On This Day in 1941, the Tuskegee Airmen were Established

On March 19, 1941, the U.S. War Department established the 99th Pursuit Squadron of the U.S. Army Air Corps (AAC) that would become the first unit consisting of African American pilots known as the Tuskegee Airmen. In a time when segregation was the law of the land, the Tuskegee Airmen pushed back on the prevalent racism within and outside the ranks of the U.S. military. Following accomplishments in flight by pilots like Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart in the decades before (1920s & 1930s), young men and women lined to up follow their flight paths; among them were young African Americans looking for their chance to take flight.

Unfortunately, African Americans were regarded as less-than and this widespread way of thought presented significant obstacles. In fact, black people were regarded as inferior in combat and seen as unable to become trained pilots. In 1938, President Roosevelt, seeing war was on the horizon, expanded the Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP) in the U.S. to ramp up the number of pilots in the nation; black people were excluded. But, in 1939, the CPTP opened up to historically black colleges which helped increase the number of black aviators. In 1940, the Roosevelt Administration announced that the AAC would begin training black pilots. At the start of 1941, it was announced that an all-black fighter pilot unit would be trained at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama located in the heart of the Jim Crow South.

Tuskegee airman Instructor Daniel “Chappie” James

The Tuskegee Airmen would go on to confront racism at home and abroad while racking up an exemplary record in World War II. The Tuskegee program would train some 1,000 pilots and nearly 14,000 navigators, bombardiers, instructors, aircraft and engine mechanics, control tower operators, and other maintenance and support staff. The Tuskegee Airmen flew about 1,600 missions and destroyed over 260 enemy aircraft in Nazi-controlled territory. In addition to the airmen’s amazing record, they would help lay the foundation for President Truman’s decision to finally desegregate the armed forces in 1948.

Following the war and desegregation, the Airmen carried on in the newly formed U.S. Air Force (USAF) and some taught in civilian flight schools. They were instrumental in developments in aviation and one Daniel “Chappie” James, Jr. became the first African-American to attain the rank of four-star general. Another Airmen Marion Rodgers went on to work for NORAD and served as a program developer for the Apollo 13 project.

Time has seen the Tuskegee Airmen cement a remarkable legacy of breaking barriers and accomplishments during and after World War II.

Time has also seen members pass on with age. Robert Holts, the last known member of the Tuskegee Airmen, died on February 12, 2021 at the age of 96.

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