As the first Black aviators to serve in the U.S. Army Air Corps, the Tuskegee Airmen broke through a massive segregation barrier in the American military. Their success and heroism during World War II, fighting Germans in the skies over Europe, shattered pervasive stereotypes that African Americans had neither the character nor the aptitude for combat. And their achievements laid crucial groundwork for civil rights progress in the decades to come.
In the summer of 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Civilian Pilot Training Program Act to train civilian aviators at colleges and vocational schools in preparation for a national emergency. The law contained a provision that “none of the benefits of training or programs shall be denied on account of race, creed, or color.” At the time, there were only 124 licensed Black pilots in the United States—and none in the Army Air Corps.
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Of six historically black colleges and universities included in the program, the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama became the most renowned. In January 1941, the War Department, under pressure from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to include black aviators, established at Tuskegee the nation’s first Black flying unit: the 99 th Pursuit Squadron, which was later renamed the 99th Fighter Squadron.
Between 1941 and 1945, nearly 1,000 pilots trained in the Tuskegee program; of those, 450 saw combat during World II in the 99th and 332nd Fighter groups. In aerial battles over North Africa and Europe, these pilots flew more than 1,500 missions, largely as escort planes for the bombers, but sometimes in direct combat. Of the extraordinary men who served as Tuskegee-trained pilots, here are six standouts:
Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. (1912-2002)
At a time when African Americans faced overwhelming racism and discrimination in the military, Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., son of the Army’s first Black general, built a historic career: One of a small handful of African Americans to be admitted to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point since Reconstruction—and the only one there during his own tenure—he went on to command the Tuskegee Airmen, serve in three wars and become a general himself.
After graduating from West Point in 1936, Davis, Jr. was denied access to the Army Air Corp on the basis of race, and initially served as an infantry officer. In 1941, when the War Department began training Black pilots at the Tuskegee Airfield, he became one of the first five pilots to receive his wings. During World War II, he served as commander of both Tuskegee units to see combat: the 99th Fighter Squadron and the 332nd Fighter Group. Under his leadership, they shot down 112 enemy planes, and destroyed or damaged 273 on the ground. His groups lost just 66 of their planes and only about 25 of the bombers under their escort. For leading both units in Europe, Davis earned several honors, including the Silver Star. President Harry Truman later asked him to help draft the military’s landmark desegregation plan.
When Davis was promoted to Brigadier General in 1954, he became the first African American general in the Air Force. In 2002, he was promoted to full general on the retired list in a White House ceremony with President Bill Clinton. In 2019, the U.S. Air Force Academy named its airfield after him.
Daniel Chappie James (1920-1978)
Daniel James, the first Black four-star general in the Air Force, became a member of the Tuskegee Airmen in 1943, but spent World War II stateside as a flight instructor. During the Korean War, he flew 101 combat missions. As a vice commander of the Eighth Tactical Fighter Wing in Thailand, James flew 78 combat missions during the Vietnam War.
In 1970, as the commander of the 7272nd Fighter Training Wing at Wheelus Air Force Base in Libya, James had a memorable standoff with Muammar el-Qaddafi, who had recently led a successful military coup of Libya’s government. Qaddafi was attempting to seize the base when he encountered James outside its gates.“ I had my .45 in my belt. I told him to move his hand away. If he had pulled that gun, he never would have cleared his holster,” James said.
The encounter passed without incidence and James succeeded in removing 4,000 people and $21 million in assets from the facility. He died on February 25, 1978, a month after retiring from the Air Force.
Roscoe Brown (1922-2016)
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During World War II, Roscoe Brown flew 68 combat missions, downing a German jet outside Berlin during an escort mission in 1945. As a part of the Tuskegee Airmen’s bomber-escort missions in the 99th Fighter Squadron, he was one of three Red Tailed Angels. In 2007, Brown and five other Tuskegee airmen accepted the Congressional Gold Medal on behalf of the nearly 1,000 black men who went through the Tuskegee Airmen program between 1941 and 1945. Brown also earned the Distinguished Flying Cross for his bravery and skill.
In an oral history, Brown said: “Many of the bomber pilots [we escorted] said, ‘We saw the Red Tail P-51s and they were our saviors… Many of them did not know—most of them did not know—[we] were African Americans.
After the war, Brown became an educator, social activist and one of the most prominent caretakers of the Tuskegee Airmen legacy until his death at age 94.
READ MORE: The Tuskegee Airmen: 5 Fascinating Facts
Charles McGee (b. 1919)
After graduating from flight training in Tuskegee in 1943, Charles McGee was assigned to the 332nd Fighter group, in which he flew 137 combat missions. By the time he retired in 1973 from the Air Force at the rank of Colonel, he had flown a combined 409 combat missions in World War II, Korea and the Vietnam War—more than any other Air Force pilot. Along with Roscoe Brown, McGee flew the P-51B Mustang and was one of the Red Tailed Angels that escorted heavy bombers over targets in occupied Europe.
To celebrate his 100th birthday in 2019, McGee piloted a private jet from Maryland to Dover Air Force Base, where he was met by 100 service members from the 436th Airlift Wing. McGee is one of the oldest living Tuskegee Airmen.
WATCH: 'Tuskegee Airmen' on HISTORY Vault
Lucius Theus (1922-2007)
Theus is the first and only mission support officer of the Tuskegee Airmen to be promoted to general and the third black Air Force general after Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., and Daniel Chappie James. During World War II, he served as a member of the 332nd Fighter group.
After World War II, he quickly ascended the ranks as an Air Force personnel officer. After a race riot between black and white enlisted men and noncommissioned officers at Travis Air Force Base in 1971, Theus was called in to administer programs to address equal opportunity and communication across races in the military, initiatives that had first been inspired nearly 30 years earlier through the success of the Tuskegee Airmen.
Theus became the first African American combat support officer promoted to the rank of general officer.
Charles Alfred ‘Chief’ Anderson (1907-1996)
Known as the father of Black aviation, Charles Anderson was Tuskegee’s chief civilian flight instructor during World War II. In 1932, after receiving his pilot’s license, he was the only Black flight instructor in the United States.
In the coming years, along with another Black aviation pioneer, Dr. Albert Forsythe, Anderson completed several “firsts” for African American pilots. Among their feats, Anderson and Forsythe made the first transcontinental round trip by black pilots: Atlantic City to Los Angeles in 1933.
In 1941, as the chief aviation instructor at Tuskegee, Anderson gave First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt a flight during her visit to Tuskegee. She had heard, in her words, “that colored people couldn’t fly,” but after their short trip could say, “Well, I see you can fly all right!” Coverage of her visit helped cement support in Washington for the program.
During World War II, Anderson was Tuskegee’s ground commander and chief aviation instructor for the 99th Pursuit Squadron. After World War II, Chief Anderson continued training pilots at Moten Field in Tuskegee.
In 2014, he became the first Tuskegee Airman to be featured on a U.S. postage stamp.