Freedom Fighters in Flight: The Legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen

Feb 13, 2017

The Purple Heart Foundation’s recognition of all veterans reaches an important time during February as the Purple Heart honors Black History Month with a historic tribute to the brave men and women who paved the way for all African-American men and women--The Tuskegee Airmen.

Who Were the Tuskegee Airmen?

The Tuskegee Airmen were also known as the 332nd Fighter Group and fought in more than 1,000 combat missions during World War II. Many of those involved in the “Tuskegee Experience” were both men and women navigators, bombardiers, support staff and airplane maintenance. Around 450 Tuskegee Airmen pilots were trained at the Tuskegee Institute and earned their wings to fight for our freedoms during WWII.

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Thousands of African-Americans received pilot training at the Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University).  Of the many combat missions completed during the War by the Tuskegee Airmen, they shot down 112 enemy aircraft and destroyed another 150 on the ground.

One of the pilot training schools that sent its graduates to the Tuskegee Institute was the Coffey School of Aeronautics in Chicago. The Coffey School became the first government-approved aviation training school for African-Americans in the U.S. The School was established by Willa Brown and her husband Cornelius Coffey.  

Willa Brown was the first African-American female to receive a U.S.-issued commercial pilot’s license. Brown trained hundreds of men and women civilian pilots, with many men who went on to later become members of the Tuskegee Airmen. Click here for a list of all pilot graduates from the Tuskegee Institute. Among those graduates was legendary Tuskegee Airman Col. Charles E. McGee.

Well-known Tuskegee Airman and retired U.S. Air Force Col. Charles E. McGee flew in a record number ofcombat missions (409) as a fighter pilot after completing 30 years of military service during three conflicts (World War II, Korea and Vietnam Wars). He was a member of the original 302nd Fighter Squadron and acted as a consultant for the 2012 George Lucas film Red Tails. The Airmen were also known as the “Red Tail Squadron.”  

“Red-Tails” with Purple Hearts

The Tuskegee Airmen were known as the “Red Tail Squadron” because the tips of their aircraft were painted red. At least 47 Purple Hearts have been awarded to the Tuskegee Airmen and some of those many recipients are:

2nd Lt. James L. McCullin

The late 2nd Lt. James McCullin is a Purple Heart recipient. McCullin was killed in action during a combat mission in 1943 and was one of the first African-American fighter pilots killed during World War II. McCullin was part of the 99th Fighter Squadron.  

Lt. Col. Alexander Jefferson

Retired Lt. Col. Jefferson received the Purple Heart in 2004 by former President George W. Bush.  Also a Detroit, MI native, Jefferson was one of the most famous and well known Tuskegee Airmen who fought in the 332nd Fighter Group during World War II.  He served as an Air Force officer for more than 25 years.  In 2015 and 2016, award-winning documentary The Luft Gangster: Memoirs of A Second Class Hero described Jefferson’s life and legacy.     

U.S. Army Tech. Sgt. George Watson, Sr.,

Retired Army Sgt. Watson, Sr. received the Purple Heart in 2010 for his combat wounds during a 1944 German air raid. He served as a supply sergeant and support personnel for the Airmen, and was the first African-American recruiter for the Army and Air Force in his home state of New Jersey from 1951 to 1955.

Let’s Go for a Plane Ride

In March 1941, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt visited Tuskegee Institute and met with head of civilian pilot training Charles “Chief” Anderson (below, right) for a historic flight.

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Mrs. Roosevelt took a historic half-hour flight with Anderson; after her return to Washington, the FDR administration announced that the nation’s first African-American pilots would be trained at Tuskegee Institute. Approximately one year later, the 100th Fighter Squadron of the Tuskegee Airmen was established.  

The Tuskegee Airmen Legacy Lives On

In July 1948, President Truman issued an Executive Order which desegregated the Armed Forces, and Eleanor Roosevelt’s historic flight with Anderson played a pivotal part. In 1971, the Airmen formed their first national organization, known today as the Tuskegee Airmen, Inc.

The 99th Fighter Squadron was formed by orders from the White House to eliminate segregation in the Armed Services. One of those squadron members was the late Dr. Luna L. Mishoe, former Delaware State University President. Dr. Mishoe was a photographic intelligence and communications officer, and served as an Airman from 1942 to 1945.

Delaware State, itself, has a long history in the aviation community, as they originally took part in the recruiting and screening of potential African-American pilots during the late 1930s. Many recruits were later transferred to Tuskegee.

A Salute to the Tuskegee Airmen

The Tuskegee Airmen were recognized in the 2009 movie Night of the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonians, when one of the Tuskegee Airmen (Craig Robinson) acknowledged female aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart (Amy Adams).

“Ma’am, I’d just like to say thank you…”
“For what?” (Earhart)
“Well, a lot of people didn’t think we could fly, either.  Thanks for clearing the runway” [salutes Earhart].

The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. paid an on-stage tribute to seven surviving members of the Tuskegee Airmen in September 2016 with ABC’s “Taking the Stage: African American Music and Stories That Changed America,” which coincided with Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture grand opening.   

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The Tuskegee Airmen’s legacy is not just a reflection of their heroic victories from WWII.  They are symbols of freedom against foreign enemies and racism on the homefront. All veterans and their families receive support from Military Order of the Purple Heart programs, such as the National Service Officers Program, the VAVS (Veterans Assisting Veterans Service) program, the Americanism program and many more.

The Purple Heart Foundation is committed to assisting veterans in all aspects of their lives. Nearly 90% of all cash donations to the Purple Heart Foundation are tax deductible and go towards supporting those programs. You can show your support for all men and women by making a one-time or monthly pledge by clicking here.



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