Origins of the Tuskegee Airmen—the 99th Fighter Squadron’s First Encounters with Enemy Aircraft

By late spring 1943 the Allies had ejected Axis forces from North Africa and had their sights set on invading the Italian mainland. But to do so, they first would have to gain control of Sicily, and its surrounding minor islands. While many Allied units participated in this effort,  one unit, the 99th Fighter Squadron, encountered enemy aircraft for the first time in June 1943, forever changing American military history.

As the first African-American unit of fighter pilots to fly in combat, men of the 99th would ultimately become known as Tuskegee Airmen. Members of the 99th, along with the 100th, 301st and 302nd fighter squadrons, trained at the Tuskegee Institute and Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama, thus receiving the moniker. Some of the very best men were chosen for the program. Academic scholars, scientists, Olympians and remarkable leaders were not uncommon in their ranks. But despite this momentous breakthrough, African Americans still experienced racism and segregation on a daily basis—something they hoped would change after their dedicated service in the war.

In April 1943 the 99th arrived in North Africa for maneuvers and training. The following month they were assigned to the Twelfth Air Force Support Command in Tunisia for combat operations attached to the 33rd Fighter Group. And by June 1943, the 99th began supporting Operation Corkscrew—the attack on Pantelleria Island. Located in the Sicilian narrows, Pantelleria had coastal forts and a fortified airfield, making it a critical location to control prior to the Allied attack on Sicily.

On June 9, 1943 while escorting bombers at 3,000 feet over Pantelleria, four enemy fighters attacked the 99th from above.  While five of the American fighters pursued the enemy, eight others stuck with the bombers. Despite the surprise attack by the Germans, the unit suffered no losses that day. This proved a good performance for a new squadron with no real combat experience going up against experienced enemy pilots.

Pantelleria fell on June 11, and in the subsequent days the 99th patrolled the straights with other squadrons as far as the coast of Sicily. Just days later on June 18 the 99th encountered more enemy aircraft. An afternoon patrol of six fighters had left Tunisia for Pantelleria. A pilot spotted four German fighters beginning an attack from high above. The American fighters maneuvered defensively, all surviving the encounter despite sustaining some damage. Secretary of War Henry Stimson publicly recognized the efforts of the  99th.“We are all very proud of the splendid activity of a fighter squadron commanded by Lt. Col. Benjamin O. Davis over Pantelleria.”

On July 2, 1943 a dozen fighters of the 99th escorted medium bombers to Sicily on a morning mission.  Over Sicily a mixed formation of German fighters approached the bombers.  Some fighters stuck with the bombers while others attacked, engaging in a short dogfight.  The American fighters regrouped.  Two enemy fighters reappeared above as the bombers completed their attack. Lt. Charles Hall of the 99th turned into the attack to protect the bombers.  He described the attack like this:

“It was my eighth mission and the first time I had seen the enemy close enough to shoot him. I saw two Focke-Wulfs following the bombers just after the bombs were dropped. I headed for the space between the fighters and bombers and managed to turn inside the Jerries. I fired a long burst and saw my tracers penetrate the second aircraft. He was turning to the left, but suddenly fell off and headed straight into the ground. I followed him down and saw him crash. He raised a big cloud of dust.”

After this attack, Hall was separated from the rest of his unit and on his own. Enemy fighters  dogged him for twenty minutes before giving up. Hall scored the first victory for the 99th after bringing down this enemy aircraft. He received the Distinguished Flying Cross from Gen. Dwight Eisenhower and received congratulations from Generals James Doolittle and Carl Spaatz.  While Hall narrowly escaped death that day, some of his comrades were not as lucky.  Lieutenants Sherman White and James McCullin went down at sea after a midair collision.

The Tuskegee Airmen of the 99th went on to acclaim with other squadrons of the 332nd Fighter Group.  They covered the Allied landings in Sicily and Italy. They received newer and better fighter aircraft. Eventually, based in Italy, they became a well-recognized escort for the Fifteenth Strategic Air Force. While the U.S. military continued to be segregated throughout World War II, the actions of the 99th in the summer of 1943 over the Mediterranean paved the way for other African-American air combat units, and eventually an integrated military.