The realization of black pilots flying combat aircraft for the U.S. military was put to its most critical test July 19, 1941. On that day, the Tuskegee Army Airfield officially opened in rural Alabama, where a capable group of young men set out to prove they carried the aptitude, emotional toughness and physical stamina necessary to succeed as aviators. Not all of them made it through the program. There was an incredibly high washout rate, and the adversities they faced from their instructors, other pilots and even the government they committed to protect added to the difficulties. It was a curriculum nearly designed for their failure. But they all came to the table with a deep spirit of independence, adventure and, above all, an undeniable desire to fly. They started as the 99th Pursuit Squadron, melding into the 332nd Fighter Group and eventually made their mark in Italy as the best protective fighter plane escorts for heavy bomber aircraft during WWII—never losing one to enemy fire. Dubbed Red Tails, due to the painted tail sections of their aircraft, their success helped to sear away many of the negative perceptions of African-American potential from that time to the present. Nearly 1,000 men eventually trained at Tuskegee and their personal experiences are indelible testaments to courage under fire. The profiles that follow are of members and affiliates of the Chicago “DODO” Chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen. Through their words, we gain a clearer understanding of what it meant to be associated with that elite cadre during a very conflicted period in American history. The results of their heroics in the air and their struggles on the ground weren’t just solitary victories for the flyers themselves, but were also triumphs celebrated by their families, their friends and an entire nation. These are their accounts.
To read more on the Tuskegee Airmen, pick up the February issue of EBONY on stands now!