Published June 10, 2005
NEW YORK – The control tower standing at Moton Field in Tuskegee, Ala., may be weathered, but the legacy left by America’s first black military pilots, the Tuskegee Airmen (search), is as vibrant as ever.
The airmen sacrificed much on both European and American soil and rose from adversity to serve America on silver wings.
Today, minorities serve in every branch of the U.S. Armed Forces. But in the 1940s, it was a combination of the war against the Axis powers (search) abroad and the war against segregation at home that allowed the Tuskegee Airmen to win their biggest battle — the battle for respect and equality in the military.
In July of 1941, the U.S. Army Air Corps (search) was the first agency to accept the government's challenge to expand the role of blacks in the military. At that time, the U.S. military, much like the rest of the nation, was segregated. Many people believed blacks couldn't fly combat aircraft.
"They said: 'One, they are not equal to white men. Two, they can't operate complicated equipment. They're cowardly in the face of danger, and things like that," former airman Lee Archer Jr. told FOX News' "War Stories" host Oliver North.
The odds were against them as they began flight training at the Division of Aeronautics of Tuskegee Institute and combat training at Tuskegee Army Air Field. But what began as a military experiment developed into a squad of skilled and brave pilots.
"My dream was always to be a pilot, flying the best that Uncle Sam had," said airman Charles Dryden.
It was hard to earn your wings in the 99th Fighter Squadron. The segregated military allotted only about 30 slots in the squadron, and the fierce competition to fill those slots made the Tuskegee Airmen some of the best fighter pilots the United States had.
But despite their talent and eagerness to be deployed, it wasn't until 1943 that the military agreed to send the 99th into action.
"The 99th became, certainly, one of the best trained fighter squadrons in the Army Air Corps, because they had so much time to spend at Tuskegee training," said Thomas Reilly, co-author of "Black Knights: The Story of The Tuskegee Airmen."
So 450 men trained at Tuskegee were deployed for overseas combat. Their aircraft flew in over 15,000 combat missions, destroyed over 250 enemy planes and never lost a bomber to an enemy fighter. They engaged in combat around the Mediterranean out of their headquarters in North Africa. Some of the 99th were also assigned to escort the 332d Fighter Group on its missions around Italy.
One reason the Tuskegee Airmen were so successful was because they held themselves to such high standards.
"We had the mission of escorting bombers. If you lose a bomber, don't come home," said Dryden.
The 99th Fighter Squadron proved itself in countless missions. In one operation, the 99th led an aerial bombardment so crushing, the Italians surrendered before ground troops could invade.
On another mission, 17 German planes were shot down by the squadron over a tw-day stretch.
"Seventeen in two days. And that's when the world began to realize, 'oh, they could do it,'" Dryden said.
Gradually, the Tuskegee airmen were recognized for their success in battle. Then Secretary of War Henry Stimson (search) and Gen. Henry "Hap" Arnold wrote glowing reports about the 99th Flight Squadron.
But not everyone received the credit they deserved.
In October of 1944, Lee Archer Jr. made three kills that would have brought his total to five air victories — giving him the extraordinary status of 'ace.' Archer would have been the first Tuskegee Airman to reach this level. But upon further review, the military refused to grant him the title.
"It was just plain racist. I don't think they were ready for a black guy to be called an ace," Archer said.
The ruling reminded the Tuskegee airmen that even though they had come so far, they still had a long way to go until their civil rights were recognized.
"You can set a goal but you got to do some work, doing your best, not letting obstacles deter you from accomplishing that goal," said airman Charles McGee. "If you think negatively, you're taking yourself out of a posture to do your best, because you're looking the wrong way."