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20 Things to Love About Alabama: The Tuskegee Airmen

Contrary to myth, they did lose some planes...but not many.

Portrait Of Tuskegee Cadet James R Smith Photo by US Army Air Corps/PhotoQuest/Getty Images

Housed at Tuskegee University’s Moton Field, the Basic and Advanced Flying School for Negro Air Corps Cadets trained airmen in WWII for the 99th fighter group. That group would eventually become the 332nd Fighter Group (now the 332d Expeditionary Operations Group) and the 477th Bombadier Group (now the 477th Fighter Group).

While composed of all-black flight crews, the “Tuskegee Airmen” encompassed a much broader term than just those fighters and bombers: it included nurses, mechanics, support staff, logistics, crew chiefs, cooks, and many others who supported the Airmen operations. Many would be surprised to learn that of the 10:1 support personnel-to-pilot ratio in the Airmen, the support groups also included Native Americans, Latinos, and even some white personnel. But, when we think of the Airmen, it is the 932 all-black pilots we envision.

These airmen, the first black combat pilots in the United States armed forces, overcame a great deal of structural difficulties to even get off the ground: mistrust between they and white pilots, outright racism, a command structure that didn’t believe the airmen of different races could be trained together, local Jim Crow laws, and systemic segregation extending all the way up through the chain of command.

Those men who joined the Airmen weren’t just flying for God, Home, and Fatherland. Nor were they flying to prove a larger point of racial equality. Nope, it turns out, that like most pilots, the Airmen were intensely driven by competition and to prove that they were the best; pilot is not exactly a modest profession. Added to the Airmen’s stringent admission requirements, and a very short leash (one officer was court-martialed for entering the officer’s club and demanding to be served), they would prove to inherently be some of the most motivated combat pilots in the service.

And, that motivation shown through in their record. These two groups were among America’s best serving over the skies of Italy, Germany, North Africa, and in the Pacific theatre.

Their service record included:

  • 1378 combat mission flown
  • 179 bomber escort missions, with a good record of protection, losing only 25 bombers
  • 112 enemy aircraft destroyed in the air, another 150 on the ground and 148 damaged
  • 950 rail cars, trucks and other motor vehicles destroyed (over 600 rail cars)
  • One destroyer put out of action.
  • 40 boats and barges destroyed
  • They had destroyed or damaged 36 German planes in the air and 237 on the ground, as well as nearly 1,000 rail cars and transport vehicles and a German destroyer.

Their awards and decorations included:

  • 14 Bronze Stars
  • 744 Air Medals
  • Over 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses
  • At least one Silver Star
  • And three Distinguished Unit Citations.

The Tuskegee Airmen’s service was not without cost, of course.

During the War, 66 Tuskegee Airmen were killed during their 15,000 sorties. Another 32 were captured as POWs after being shot down, and 8 Purple Hearts were awarded.

And neither was their service record without tarnish. The rumor persists to this day that the Tuskegee Airmen fighter group never lost a bomber they escorted (the 477th bomber squad never flew a mission). Later research revealed, however, that they in fact lost 25 during the course of the war. However, that number was still twice as good as the rest of 15th Air Force, where the 332nd was housed — which lost on average 46 bombers.

But, it is exactly these warts and wrinkles in their service record that makes the rest of the accomplishments all the more more impressive; certainly more so than perpetuating a George Washington/cherry tree myth that the Airmen were unsinkable savants and airborne ubermensch in the most deadly war in human history. Between 55 million and 80 million people lost their lives in that conflict; those 66 airmen and the crew of those 25 bombers were among them, and that sacrifice ought not be forgotten.

The United States military certainly didn’t. Owing in part to the Airmen’s success, the armed services desegregated in 1948.

You can find out more about the Airmen here.

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