The Tuskegee Airmen were dedicated, determined young men who enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps to become America’s first black military airmen. They accepted the challenge during a time when many people thought that blacks lacked the intelligence, skill, courage and patriotism.
In 1939, the Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP), a new flight training initiative sponsored by the federal government, was launched to increase the number of civilian pilots in the United States, who could possibly be used as potential military pilots, if needed. This program gave many black college students a chance to earn their private pilot license. Several black colleges, including Tuskegee Institute, participated in the program. However, learning to fly in the CPTP was different than becoming a military aviator in the Air Corps
The War Department announced that the Civil Aeronautics Authority, in cooperation with the U.S. Army, would start the development of “colored personnel” for the aviation service, this paved the way for blacks to train as pilots and as vital support personnel.
These men, who volunteered came from every part of the country, with large numbers coming from the cities of New York City, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia and Detroit. Each one possessed a strong personal desire to serve the United States of America at the best of his ability.
The military selected the Tuskegee Institute to train pilots because of its commitment to aeronautical training.
The first aviation class with 13 cadets began July 19, 1941, with ground school training in subjects such as meteorology, navigation, and instruments. Successful cadets then transferred to the segregated Tuskegee Army Air Field (TAAF) to complete the Army Air Corps pilot training. The Air Corps provided aircraft, textbooks, flying clothes, parachutes, and mechanic suits, while the Tuskegee Institute provided the facilities for the aircraft and personnel. Lt. Col. Noel F. Parrish served as the base commander from 1942-46.
On March 7, 1942, five of the 13 cadets in the first class completed the Army Air Corps pilot training program and earned their silver wings and became the nation’s first black military pilots. They were second lieutenants Lemuel R. Custis, Charles DeBow, Mac Ross, George Spencer Roberts and Captain Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., a West Point Academy graduate.
Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. later became the leader of the Tuskegee Airmen during World War II and the first black to become general in the Air Force.
Three hundred and fifty of the pilots, who trained at the Tuskegee Army Air Field, served in the 332nd Fighter Group or either the 99th Pursuit Squadron (later the 99th Fighter Squadron).
The 332nd Fighter Group officially activated on Oct. 13, 1942, at Tuskegee Army Air Field. The group consisted of the 301st Fighter squadron under Lt. Charles DeBow; the 302nd Fighter Squadron under Lt. William T. Mattison and the 100th Fighter under Lt. George Knox. (The 100th Fighter Squadron was initially commanded by Lt. Mac Ross until his appointment as the group’s operations officer.)
In additional to training fighter pilots, Tuskegee also graduated a group of twin-engine pilots. They were assigned to the 477th Bombardment Group, who flew the B-25 Billy Mitchell, a twin engine-medium bomber. The group was activated with four squadrons: The 616th, 617th, 618th and the 619th Squadrons, however, the war against Japan ended before the 477th Group could be deployed overseas.
On 21 June 1945, Col. Benjamin O. Davis Jr. assumed command of the Group. In July 1947, the 477th Composite Group was inactivated and the 332d Fighter Group was activated again, in its place. The new 332d Fighter Wing was activated at the same time, and the 332 Fighter Group was assigned to it. In March 1946, the unit relocated to Lockbourne Army Air Base in Ohio. In January 1947 the unit was reassigned to Ninth Air Force then inactivated in July 1947.
Throughout their training at Tuskegee, no training standards were lowered for the pilots or for any of the others, who trained in the fields of operations, meteorology, intelligence, engineering, and medicine.
From 1941 through 1946 close to 1,000 pilots graduated from Tuskegee Army Air Field, receiving commissions and pilot wings. The black navigators, bombardiers and gunnery crews were trained at other selected military bases elsewhere in the United States. Mechanics were initially trained at Chanute Air Base in Rantoul, Ill. until facilities were in place in 1942 at TAAF.