29 reasons to celebrate Black History Month: No. 16, Tuskegee Airmen

February marks Black History Month. Follow the AJC this month for a series of short stories and videos and people, places and events that played a significant role in the development of black people in America. 

On the surface, the Tuskegee Airmen was the common name given to the World War II U.S. Air Force pilots of the 332nd Fighter Group and the 477th Bombardment Group. But they were much more than that.

In a time when racism and Jim Crow permeated every segment of American life – military included – the Tuskegee Airmen became the first African-American military aviators in the armed forces. Prior to 1940, blacks were barred from training as military pilots. But starting in 1941, nearly 1,000 black pilots would receive training at Moton Field in Tuskegee, Ala.

During the war, 355 of them were deployed overseas and 84 would die in combat. But the group, whose planes were known for their distinctive “Red Tails,” would be credited for flying more than 1,500 missions.

They were also distinguished as an escort group, assigned to protect bombers and, for more than a half century after the war, it was said that the Red Tails never lost a bomber. But recently reported military studies concluded that while they had one of the most impressive escorting records of any unit during the war, the Tuskegee Airmen did in fact lose a total of 27 bombers on seven of the 179 escort missions they participated in. By comparison, the average number of bombers lost by the other P-51 fighter groups of the Fifteenth Air Force during the same period was 46.

Several retired Airmen live in Atlanta.

RELATED: Remembering Tuskegee Airmen from legacy.com

Reason No. 17: Alonzo Herndon

More Black History Month stories from the AJC

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