Black Airmen in World War II - 1941-1945
By James A. Sheppard
South Portland, Maine
Prior to 1941, it was the policy of the U. S. War Department (Dept. of Defense) to maintain segregated military units in the Armed Forces. The few black infantry, cavalry, and artillery units that existed at that time in the army were commanded at the top ranks by white officers, with black officers relegated to the lower ranks. This system remained in force throughout World War I and World War II, with few exceptions.
In early 1941, before the USA entered WWII, the Army Air Corps was directed by President Roosevelt to train Black military personnel as airplane pilots and technicians to staff an all-black Pursuit (Fighter) Squadron, commanded by all-black officers and enlisted men, in preparation for combat. An airfield was constructed in Chehaw, Alabama, located six miles north of Tuskegee University, and named Tuskegee Army Air Field. The 99th Pursuit (Fighter) Squadron was activated, and trained there. In late 1942, three more squadrons were activated. They were the 100th, 301st, and 302nd Fighter Squadrons, of the newly formed 332nd Fighter Group.
In April, 1943, the 99th, with Colonel B. O. Davis as Commander, departed New York City by troopship and was transported to Morocco, Africa. Col. Davis was a 1936 graduate of West Point. Flying from Cape Bon, Tunisia, the squadron flew Curtiss P-40L fighters, with the 12th U. S. Army Air Force in tactical operations against the Axis armies in the Mediterranean Theatre of Operations. The first aerial victory for the 99th occurred in July by Captain Hall of Indiana, when he shot down one German fighter. With the 12th Air Force, the squadron specialized in strafing and dive-bombing missions against enemy ground targets, within close proximity to Allied troops. The 99th participated in the invasion of Sicily, and was based in Licata for a short period of time. In January, 1944, the 99th gave a very good account of themselves during the US Army's invasion of Anzio, Italy, in aerial combat against the Luftwaffe, and precision dive-bombing against the German troops. Twelve Messerschmitt BF l09 and Focke-Wulf FW-190 fighters were shot down by the guns of the 99th, while flying P-40 Warhawks, during one two-day period of the four month battle for Rome.
The 332nd Fighter Group completed combat training at Selfridge Army Air Field and Oscoda Army Air Field in Michigan in late 1943. In January 1944, the three squadrons departed Hampton Roads, Virginia, on three troopships that was part of a large merchant ship convoy. They sailed across the Atlantic and Mediterranean, to Taranto and Naples, Italy. From aerodromes in Naples and Montecorvino, the Group flew Bell P-39 Airacobra fighters with the 12th U. S. Army Air Force, performing combat patrol over the Tyrennean Sea and strafing attacks in and around Cassino and Anzio, against the German army, until late Spring.
In June 1944, the 332nd transferred to the 15th U. S. Army Air Force, and moved to an aerodrome named Ramitelli, located near Termoli on the Adriatic. The 332nd was one of seven Fighter Groups in the 15th. Until that date, it was not uncommon for the individual squadrons to operate out of separate airstrips, or recently captured aerodromes. Here the 99th joined the 332nd for the first time in the war. The primary mission now became escort duty for the seventeen Bomber Groups of the 15th U. S. Army Air Force.
The Group was now capable of launching anywhere from 48 P-47 Thunderbolts, or P-51 Mustangs per mission, or, up to 64 fighters for maximum effort missions. There was a considerable increase in activity after joining the 15th Air Force. The group scored most of its aerial victories over the Luftwaffe while engaged in long-range protective escort for B-17 Flying Fortresses, and B-24 Liberators, during air raids over Yugoslavia, Austria, France, Rumania, Germany and Greece. Several 99th and 332nd Group pilots scored three, or even four victories each, against German Me-109 and FW-190 fighters. During one two-day period in March, 1945, Group pilots shot down a total of 25 German fighters, while flying P-51 Mustangs. The Group made one final move in Italy, to Cattolica Aerodrome, near Rimini. By the war's end in May, 1945, the score sheet included; one German Destroyer sunk in the Adriatic Sea by P-47 Thunderbolts, near Trieste, and 111 enemy planes destroyed in aerial combat, including 3 Messerschmitt Me-262 jet fighters, the pride of the Luftwaffe. Also, over 140 German and Italian planes were destroyed on their own aerodromes.
In March, 1945, the 332nd was awarded a Presidential Unit Citation. However, the price paid for those achievements was: 66 pilots killed-in-action, and over 30 pilots captured, and held as prisoners of war in enemy-held territory. Also, the 302nd Fighter Squadron was inactivated. The 332nd reverted back to its original three squadron Group again. The 96th Air Service Group provided logistics and heavy maintenance support at a level over and beyond squadron capability, such as transient aircraft and quartermaster supply functions. After the war ended in Europe, the 100th and the 301st departed Naples, Italy, October, 1945, by troopship, and arrived in New York harbor, where they were met by a welcoming committee, which included a fleet of fireboats, plus the media, on Staten Island. The 99th had previously returned to the States during the month of June, 1945.
While the 332nd was still overseas, the Tuskegee training program was expanded to include bombers. The 477th Medium Bombardment Group was activated, with four squadrons of B-25 Mitchell Bombers. They were: the 616th; 617th; 618th; and the 619th Squadrons. However, the war against Japan ended before the 477th Group could be deployed overseas to the Pacific. The 99th, 100th, and 301st joined this Group, and were based in Columbus. Ohio, as a Composite Group, until inactivation in 1949, after segregation in the armed forces was abolished by President Truman's Executive Order 9981 . By that time, they were redesignated as the 332nd Fighter Wing, operating P-47 Thunderbolt fighters, with Col. Davis in command.
At Tuskegee Army Airfield, 997 cadets received their pilot wings before the program ended. Of this number, about 30 were USAGF Field Artillery Liaison Pilots, who flew light observation airplanes for the 92nd Infantry Division, (Buffalo Soldiers) which saw action in Italy, with the American 5th Army. Also, Aviation Mechanics; Aerial Gunners; Armorers; Avionics Technicians; Crew Chiefs; Flight Engineers; Nav/Bombardiers; and other Technicians were trained at Tuskegee Army Air Field, and at other U. S. Army Air Force Technical training bases located throughout the country, during World War II.
Sometime after 1950, the Tuskegee Army Airfield, (airfield number 3), located six miles north of the City of Tuskegee, and which provided Basic and Advanced Flight Training, was officially closed and turned over to the City of Tuskegee, Alabama. Today, the only signs of the old airfield are the remains of some of the runways, and some of the airplane hangars' concrete foundations. Griel/Kennedy Auxiliary Field, (airfield number 1), was located 4 miles south of the city, and provided Flight Training for the USAGF and the Civilian Pilot Training Program. The former Primary Training Field, (airfield number 2), located just east of the city, and which provided Primary Flight Training, is now a civilian field named Moton Municipal Airport.
Writer: James A. Sheppard was a S/Sgt. Aviation Maintenance Technician Crew Chief with the 100th, and later, the 30lst Fighter Squadrons, of the 332nd Fighter Group, 1942 to 1945. After the war, he remained in civil aviation as a Certificated Aviation Maintenance Technician and Airplane Pilot. Served 10 years in the U.S. Air Force Reserves, as Master Sergeant Line Chief and Flight Engineer with the 436th Troop Carrier Wing at F.B.N.A.S., New York. Retired in 1987 from the Federal Aviation Administration, where he served as Supervisory Aviation Safety Inspector.