Tuskegee Airmen Broke Barriers, Changed Future of the U.S. Military

The 99th Fighter Squadron first saw combat in World War II in June 1943 over the Italian island of Pantelleria. While the mission was standard in terms of aerial support, it was a historic milestone for the squadron, and for the American military. The 99th was the first African-American unit of fighter pilots to fly in combat. But despite this momentous breakthrough, African-Americans in the U.S. military still experienced racism and segregation on a daily basis—something they hoped would change after their dedicated service in the war.

Even when the War Department announced a new pilot training program for African-Americans in 1941, many in the military and the public remained dubious about their ability to serve in such combat roles. These men, who became known as the Tuskegee Airmen, proved the doubters wrong.

Members of the 99th, along with the 100th, 301st and 302nd fighter squadrons, trained at the Tuskegee Institute and Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama, thus receiving the moniker. Over the course of World War II, nearly 1,000 pilots and 15,000 support personnel, trained or worked at this facility.

“Tuskegee Airmen” grew into a blanket term for African-American aviators and their support personnel during the World War II-era. The 477th Bombardment Group (Medium), an African-American bomber unit which did not train in Tuskegee and was not operational until after the war, nevertheless is also considered to be part of the Tuskegee Airmen.

The 99th Fighter Squadron primarily provided air support for the invasion of Sicily and mainland Italy. One of their most successful missions came in January 1944, days after Allied troops first landed on the Italian peninsula at Anzio and Nettuno. As the Germans dive-bombed Allied ships near the beachheads, members of the 99th shot down 10 enemy airplanes.

By summer 1944 the 99th joined the three other Tuskegee-trained squadrons to constitute the 332nd Fighter Group, which flew escorts for American bombers. Flying the new P-51 mustangs, the 332nd were soon nicknamed “Red Tails” for the solid red tails of their aircraft. The 332nd became one of the first Italy-based fighter units to escort B-17s all the way to Berlin and back.

By V-E day, the Tuskegee Airmen had shot down 112 enemy aircraft, knocked out 150 aircraft on the ground, and demolished over 600 railroad cars, and 40 boats and barges. Approximately 150 Tuskegee Airmen lost their lives in combat or in accidents, and 32 became prisoners of war. 

The 332nd Fighter Group became one of the most respected flying combat units of World War II. In part due to the excellence of these airmen, the U.S. Air Force was the first service to be integrated.

Fifty-one Tuskegee Airmen are buried or memorialized at ABMC cemeteries:

2nd Lt. Fred L. Brewer 2nd Lt. James L. McCullin
2nd Lt. Roger B. Brown 1st Lt. Roland W. Moody
2nd Lt. James A. Calhoun 1st Lt. John H. Morgan
2nd Lt. John H. Chavis 2nd Lt. Elton H. Nightingale
2nd Lt. James Coleman Flt. Officer Leland H. Pennington
2nd Lt. Harry J. Daniels 1st Lt. James R. Polkinghorne
Capt. Alfonza W. Davis 2nd Lt. Henry Pollard
Capt. Lawrence E. Dickson 1st Lt. John H. Prowell
2nd Lt. Alwayne M. Dunlap 1st Lt. Cornelius G. Rogers
1st Lt. Maurice V. Esters Capt. Mac Ross
Capt. William J.J. Faulkner 2nd Lt. Alphonso Simmons
2nd Lt. Samuel J. Foreman 2nd Lt. Roosevelt Stiger
1st Lt. Frederick Funderburg 2nd Lt. Norvell Stoudmire
SSgt. Percy C. Gary 2nd Lt. Thomas C. Street
2nd Lt. Clemenceau M. Givings Capt. Robert B.J. Tresville
2nd Lt. Joseph E. Gordon 1st Lt. Quitman C. Walker
1st Lt. Maceo A. Harris 1st Lt. Jimmie D. Wheeler
2nd Lt. Samuel Jefferson 1st Lt. Sherman W. White
2nd Lt. Charles B. Johnson 1st Lt. Robert H. Wiggins
1st Lt. Langdon E. Johnson 2nd Lt. Leonard R. Willette
2nd Lt. Samuel G. Leftenant 1st Lt. William F. J. Williams
Capt. Erwin B. Lawrence Flt. Officer Carl J. Woods
2nd Lt. Walter P. Manning 1st Lt. Frank N. Wright
Capt. Andrew Maples 2nd Lt. Beryl Wyatt
1st Lt. Andrew D. Marshall 2nd Lt. Albert L. Young
1st Lt. George T. McCrumby