On this day in 1941, the War Department bent to the pressure from Black activists, forming an all-Black combat pilot division. The 99th Pursuit Squadron whose pilots received training at Tuskegee became one of the squadrons that became known as the Tuskegee Airmen.
Resistance to the formation of the 99th was expected, and they were given inadequate combat training and quarters in comparison to their white counterparts. However, the squadron was thrust into battle in the summer of 1943 with a mission in the Mediterranean Sea. On July 2 of that year, Lt. Charles B. Hall struck down an enemy fighter, becoming the first Black combat fighter to do so, according to most accounts.
While Lt. Hall was lauded for his efforts and the squadron gained praise, some commanding officers still thought the pilots to be lesser than their white counterparts. Further, despite risking their lives, the Black pilots were also viewed as cowardly.
The superiors tried bolstering their claims by introducing a University of Texas report that stated Black pilots didn’t have the intellectual capacity to fly.
The late Gen. Benjamin O. Davis Jr., the U.S. Air Force’s first Black general, commanded the 99th and the 332nd Fighter groups, defending his young pilots at the time from the racist critique.
The 99th was inactivated in 1949, reinstated as a training unit in 1988 and remains an active unit today.
PHOTO: Public Domain
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