The Test:The Tuskegee Project
Background photo by Jerry Taliaferro.
In April 1943, after months of training and preparation, the 99th Fighter Squadron, an aviation unit consisting of an all African-American team landed in North Africa. This began the “test phase” of an experiment first begun months before at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. The experiment would determine whether African-American men were capable and effective combat aviators.
BLACK LIFE IN AMERICA: BEFORE WORLD WAR II
Prior to World War II, opportunities for Africans-Americans had made little progress in America. Post-Reconstruction and a rise of White Supremacy in the American South further curtailed social, economic and political advancement. The 1896 Supreme Court ruling in the case of Plessy vs. Ferguson, mandating separate but equal, legalized segregation of services and facilities. Separate but equal remained law until 1954 when it was overturned by the Brown v. Board of Education decision.
Lynching and other forms of intimidation were commonplace in the South, leading many African-Americans to seek a better life in the north and west. This movement became known as the Great Migration. From this action, African-Americans formed separate communities, and a new Black consciousness grew.
In 1905, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, NAACPP was established. Five years later the National Urban League formed. Both organizations addressed racial and equality issues. Black churches and newspapers mobilized to seek increased opportunities.
AFRICAN-AMERICANS IN AVIATION
Ventures into aviation for African-Americans evolved separately in America, where only a few aeronautical schools existed. For African-Americans, segregation denied them access to training and receiving a pilot’s license.
Charles Wesley Peters
Charles Wesley Peters, born in Virginia in 1899, moved with his parents to Pittsburgh at age 4. Peters, considered to be a genius, became interested in flight at an early age, building kites in order to understand how they flew. He was the first black pilot and first black designer and builder of an airplane. In 1911, eight years after the Wright brothers’ first successful flight, The Macon Daily Telegraph, reported on the exploit of Charles Wesley Peters of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania who wowed a crowd at the Georgia Negro State Fair by flying an aircraft he constructed over the event.
Eugene Jacques Bullard, 1894 – 1961
Born: Columbus, GA
Aeronautical opportunities for Africans-Americans were limited in America, but no such restrictions existed in France. Eugene Jacques Bullard, acknowledged as the first African-American fighter pilot, left the racism in the American South to settle in France. He joined the French Foreign Legion at the outbreak of World War I, and distinguished himself in battles. While recovering from wounds, Bullard was transferred to flight training and assigned to the Lafayette Flying Corps where he was assigned to the 93rd and 85th Spad Squadrons from August – November 1917. Bullard flew the Spad VII c1 with his personal markings depicting a bleeding heart pierced by a dagger with the French inscription, Tout Le Sang Qui Coule Est Rougr, which translates All Blood Runs Red.
Bessie Coleman, 1892 – 1926
Born Atlanta, TX
Bessie Coleman was a legendary aviation pioneer. Unable to find an institution willing to train African-Americans and a woman, she traveled to France, where she earned an international pilot’s license in 1921, and continued training to improve her skills.
Coleman returned to the United States in 1922 and developed her career as an aviator and barnstormer. Because of her flamboyant style and skill, she attracted sponsors, patrons and the black press, who promoted her as an example of the capabilities of black people. In April 1926, her brief career ended when Coleman was thrown to her death from an out-of-control aircraft flown by her manager, William D. Wills, who died in the subsequent crash. Through her example many African-Americans were encouraged to seek opportunities in the field of aviation.
Photographic print, Collection of Howard Baugh Chapter, Tuskegee Airmen Inc., Petersburg, VA
FIRST INTO BATTLE: 99TH FIGHTER SQUADRON
Shortly before World War II, the government recognized the need for an expanded Army Air Corps with trained aviators. To fulfill the need, they established the Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP), which set courses of instruction primarily at institutions of higher learning. Pressured to be included, the Roosevelt administration, developed a military aviation program at Black colleges and universities. Since separate but equal remained law, the War Department established an all-black squadron of aviators and support groups.
In early 1941, the 99th Pursuit Squadron was formed, later re-designated the 99th Fighter Squadron (FS). The 99th FS consisted of all-black aviators and support personnel trained at the Tuskegee Institute and other training sites around the country.
Photo courtesy of Jerry Taliaferro
Lt. Col. Benjamin Oliver Davis, Jr.,
Born, Washington, D.C. 1912—2002
Lieutenant Colonel Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., son of a career army officer and a 1936 graduate of West Point was placed in command the 99th FS, the first all-black fighter squadron of Tuskegee Airmen. He commanded the unit through deployment to the Mediterranean Theater of Operations followed by a return to the United States where he assumed command of the 332nd Fighter Group (FG).
In October 1943, the 332nd FG consisted of three all-black fighter squadrons – the 100th, 301st and 302nd. In 1944, the 99th FS was transferred to the 332nd FG, making Davis commander of all black fighter squadrons in the European Theatre. Throughout, he had to continue to defend the combat skills of his fliers to break color barriers and shatter racial myths, proving that they had what it takes.
Davis imprinted upon those under his command a sense of discipline and determination to succeed. The 99th FS and 332nd FG destroyed over 110 enemy aircraft, earned 3 distinguished Unit Citations, 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses and numerous other decorations.
Most importantly under Davis’s leadership, the first units of black aviators in the Armed Forces would fly more than 1,500 missions and disprove the commonly-held beliefs about African-Americans.
During his 33-year career, General Davis, Jr. served in three wars, and retired as deputy commander in Chief of the U.S. Air Force in 1970. In 1998, General Davis was recognized with a 4th Star for his distinguished and dedicated military service.
PACC Installation photo The Test: The Tuskegee Project
Supporting Air Operations:
Modern aerial warfare is dependent upon logistical support. The pilot’s activities requires the skilled and dedicated effort of hundreds of personnel to supply, fuel, arm and maintain the units that operate sophisticated aircraft. The large “maximum effort” missions consisting of hundreds of fighters and bombers were manned by thousands of ground personnel who were critical for the operations. In World War II, the U.S. Army Air Corps typically assigned each fighter aircraft a ground crew of three men, the crew chief, assistant crew chief and an armorer. They were responsible for general maintenance and keeping their assigned aircraft in mission-ready status. They in turn were supported by hangar crews, which included personnel with more specialized skills such as electricians, engine mechanics and heavy maintenance teams. Every hour spent in flight required multiple hours by skilled individuals on the ground.
The Sicily Campaign
From 9 July – 17 August 1943, the Allies invaded Sicily. Their main objective was to clear the Mediterranean Sea lanes of Axis air and naval forces, to open for an invasion of the Italian mainland.
In the skies over Sicily the 99th FS suffered their first combat losses and scored their first aerial victory. On a mission to escort bombers attacking the airfield at Castelveltrano, the 99th FS were attacked by German fighters. In the opening moments, the 99th lost two aircraft. Shortly afterwards, Lt. Charles B. Hall intercepted and shot down one of the German fighters, becoming the first African-American in the U.S. Military to down an enemy aircraft during aerial combat.
PACC Installation Photo: The Test, The Tuskegee Project
Exhibit panels courtesy of Jerry Taliaferro, Photo of 332nd FG, courtesy of Howard Baugh Chapter, Tuskegee Airmen, Inc.
ENTER THE 332ND FIGHTER GROUP
The 99th FS was moved to Sicily and undertook ground support missions, which would remain their primary mission for the remainder of 1943. Surviving combat with the Germans may have been a lesser challenge than surviving efforts by those who wanted to see them fail. Were it not for intervention by high-ranking officers, the Tuskegee Experiment would have been declared a failure and the black aviators removed from frontline combat. In September 1943, Lt. Col. Davis was recalled to the United States to assume command of the 332nd Fighter Group, which was readying for deployment.
THE FIRST RED TAILS & A NEW MISSION
“Gentlemen, stay with your bombers”,
332nd Commander Col. Benjamin O. Davis, Jr.
In spring of 1944, the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt replaced P-39 Airacobra that had equipped the 100th, 301st and 302nd Fighter Squadrons. The P-47s were the first 332nd aircraft to bare the distinctive red tails that would become the signature markings of the group. Arrival of the P-47s to the 332nd FG, marked a significant change and their mission moved from tactical support to strategic bomber escort.
Shortly after, they received the North American P-51 Mustangs. The 99th FS joined the 332nd FG and their permanent base moved to Ramitelli, Italy. The 332nd FG was transferred to the 15th Air Force where there mission was moved to offensive air operations against targets in Germany and occupied Europe. Their mission required the 332nd FG pilots to escort and protect heavy bombers on long range bombing missions deep into enemy territory.
PACC Installation Photo of The Test: Tuskegee Project
Models & Photographic panel by Jerry Taliaferro, Patches courtesy f the Howard Baugh Chapter, Tuskegee Airmen, Inc.
THE ANZIO CAMPAIGN
The battle for Anzio would prove a costly offensive action by Allied forces. The move began on 22 January 1944 by the Allies to land a force by sea on the west coast of the Italian mainland to cut off Axis forces further south. The battle, which lasted until 23 May, was a stalemate with one positive result: they tied down Axis forces trying to contain the beach head.
During the Anzio action, the 99th FS completed its move to the Italian mainland, and they demonstrated their proficiency and aggressiveness in aerial combat, quieting their detractors. In action over Anzio on 27 and 28 January 1944, 32 Axis aircrafts were shot down by Allied fighters, 13 of which were credited to the pilots of the 99th FS. During this period the 99th FS downed more enemy aircrafts than any other allied fighter squadron who participated in Anzio. For their action the 99th FS would receive its first Distinguished Unit Citation. In the coming months, the men of the 99th FS participated in the defense of the Anzio beach head and ground attack missions, and added 4 more aerial victories.
Actions by the 99th FS during Anzio proved to be the convincing factor that the Tuskegee Airmen had indeed passed “the Test” and proved conclusively that African Americans were capable and effective combat aviators.
Lt. Col. Howard Lee Baugh, 1920-2008
Born Petersburg, VA
On 27 January 1944, flying a P-40L, nicknamed “Connie Jeanne” for his wife, Lt. Howard Lee Baugh along with several pilots from the 99th Fighter Squadron intercepted German aircraft attacking the Allied beachhead at Anzio. In the ensuing air battles, the 99th FS downed 13 enemy aircraft, of which Lt. Baugh was credited 1.5 aerial victories.
Flying from Sicily and other locations in Italy, Baugh flew 135 combat missions in the P-40 Warhawk and P-51 Mustang Fighters.
Models & Photographic Panels, Courtesy of Jerry Taliaferro
AN ABLE ADVERSARY
At the start of WWII, Germany fielded one of the most advanced and powerful air forces in the world. They had begun developing the Luftwaffe and its air operations in secret, since they had been prohibited from doing so by the Treaty of Versailles at the end of the First World War. After the Nazis came to power, their air operations accelerated.
German forces succeeded in driving opposing armies from the Western part of Europe, during early stages of the war . The Luftwaffe was important in this success, clearing the skies of enemy aircraft and providing close air support to a highly mobile ground force. The German aircraft industry provided a constant stream of very capable aircrafts, some of which were ground-breaking machines. The Messerschmitt Me 163 Komet was a rocket-powered fighter and the Messersschmitt Me 262, the first operational jet fighter. However protracted campaigns on multiple fronts, the strategic bombing of Germany and the combined strength of Allied airpower eroded their strength.
Constant aerial combat and lack of a rotation system resulted in the loss of many German pilots. It also resulted in some Luftwaffe pilots becoming incredibly experienced. It was not unusual for these very experienced aces to have well over 100 aerial victories. Erich Hartmann, the highest scoring fighter pilot in history downed 352 aircraft.
BUILDING THE LEGEND
Photographic Panels & Models by Jerry Taliaferro,
Prints of Tuskegee Airmen, signed by them, courtesy of Howard Baugh Chapter, Tuskegee Airmen, Inc.
THE WAR AT HOME
Photographic Panel by Jerry Taliaferro; Photos, and Medal & Proclamation of Virginia recognizing contributions by the Tuskegee Airmen contributions, Courtesy of Howard Baugh Chapter, Tuskegee Airmen, Inc.
In 1944, as the war raged overseas, and the battle against prejudice and racism continued at home. African-Americans serving their country were not being afforded full rights of American citizenship. At times of war as with all Americans, Blacks were ready to serve. Their reasons were varied and complex. Many thought it was an obligation, while others saw serving as a way to demonstrate their worthiness as citizens. Sparked by a reader’s letter, the Pittsburgh Courier, a leading black newspaper, called for the Double V Campaign, a call for victory over the enemy abroad and over racism at home.
Despite army regulations, Maj. Gen. Frank Hunter enforced further social segregation. At Freeman Field in Indiana, Commander, Col. Selway established separate clubs for black and white officers, which moved Black officers to action. In 1945, a small group entered a club designated exclusively for white officers, and were arrested. Roger C. Terry was charged with pushing a white officer and was dishonorably discharged. The others received letters of reprimand. In 1995, the letters of reprimand were removed from their records and Roger Terry received a full pardon and restoration of rank.
THE WAR ENDS
Signed Lithographic Prints, Tuskegee Airmen FG; A. Ric Druet, Courtesy of Howard Baugh Chapter, Tuskegee Airmen, Inc.
Photographic Panels by Jerry Taliaferro
In April 1945, the war in Europe was nearing its end. Activity by the Luftwaffe had waned. Even so, in the last days the 332nd FG engaged the enemy. On the 26 April while escorting a photo reconnaissance mission to Linz and Prague, elements of the 100th FS and 301st FS encountered 5 Messerschmitt Bf109s. In the ensuing combat, 4 of the enemy aircraft were destroyed with no losses to the 332nd. These four aerial victories would be the last of the war for the 332nd and the 15th Air Force. Four days later, p-51s from the 332nd escorted a single aircraft on an eventful photo reconnaissance mission to Bolzano, Italy. This was the 332nd Fighter Group’s last mission of the war. On 8 May 1945, the Second World War ended in Europe.
The experiment that began over four years before to determine if African-Americans could be effective combat aviators also ended, and the result of the experiment is the proud legacy of the 332nd FG. They had passed “the test”. They fought in one of the most demanding arenas of warfare, had flown the most advanced aircraft their nation could produce, miles above the earth, against capable adversaries and prevailed. The 332nd FG had silenced many doubters but many still remained who would resist the change that was coming. At the end of the war, the United States Military remained segregated. Four years later, segregation in the military ended when President Truman signed Executive Order 9981.
Black servicemen and women returned to a country divided by race, but a major battle in war for equality had been won. A major pillar supporting the argument for denying opportunities to a people based solely upon the color of their skin was pulled down. “Separate but equal”, which had been law, was struck down, and the nation started to change.
For more information on the Tuskegee Airmen and this exhibit, visit the Portsmouth Art & Cultural Center, www.hbc-tai.org or you may find more information about them online. We look forward to reopening following Covid 19 closures. Call 757-393-8543 for hours. We thank you for visiting.
EXPLORE PORTSMOUTH VA
NEWS right to your email.
400 High Street, Portsmouth, VA 23704 · 757-393-8543
Mailing Address: 521 Middle Street, Portsmouth, VA 23704
The Portsmouth Art & Cultural Center, housed in the 1846 Courthouse, is devoted to offering quality educational, cultural and aesthetic experiences in the arts through rotating visual art exhibits, lectures, classes and performances.