Here are just a few of the incredible stories from the thousands of men and women who earned the title of Tuskegee Airmen between 1941 and 1949.
Major, Tuskegee Airman
Former Board President, NEAM
Lem Custis lived a life of firsts. Before ever joining the military, he had broken racial barriers to become the first African American police officer in Hartford, Connecticut. After Pearl Harbor, he applied for flight training and in March 1942 was one of the first five pilots of the Tuskegee Airmen to earn their wings.
Custis flew more than 90 combat missions with the 99th Fighter Squadron in North Africa, Sicily, and Italy, where he was one of the first Tuskegee Airmen to shoot down an enemy plane. After the war, he took a job in state government and also served on the Board of Directors at the New England Air Museum. Ever modest about his achievements, Lem and the other original Tuskegee Airmen remained role models for many of those who followed in their footsteps, both during and after the war.
"Lem was one of those who was determined that he was going to see it through and get
his wings… to prove we had the capabilities that any other human had."
Charles B. Hall
Major, Tuskegee Airman
1st African American to Shoot Down an Enemy Plane
1st African American to Earn the Distinguished Flying Cross
On 2 July 1943, Lt. Charles B. Hall was on his eighth combat mission with the 99th Fighter Squadron, 332nd Fighter Group, escorting a flight of B-25 bombers on a raid over Sicily. While over the target, he spotted two oncoming German Fw190 fighters and maneuvered his P-40 to place himself between the bombers and the enemy planes. He fired a long burst, hitting one of the fighters several times, and it soon fell away and crashed into the ground. The Tuskegee Airmen had claimed their first victory.
After the war, now-Major Hall returned home. Despite his status as the first African American to shoot down an enemy aircraft during World War II, he was unable to gain employment with any commercial airline due to his race.
“I followed him down and saw him crash. He raised a big cloud of dust.”
Luther H. Smith
Captain, Tuskegee Airman
A normal tour of duty for a pilot in the 332nd was 50 missions. Lt. Luther Smith was on number 133 when he was shot down during a strafing run on 13 October 1944. After machine-gunning a German train, Smith flew his P-51 through the resulting explosion and realized his engine had been severely damaged. As it caught fire, he sent a last radio message to his wingmen and tried to bail out.
With his right foot trapped and the aircraft spinning out of control, he finally managed to pull his parachute cord and was ripped out of the cockpit. He was captured upon landing and spent the rest of the war in a POW camp. Though his injuries forced his early retirement from the military, Smith went on to complete his degree in mechanical engineering in 1950. After countless rejections due to his race, he was finally hired by General Electric and went on to become a highly successful aerospace engineer.
“I’m going to have to get out now. See you.”
The First "Top Guns"
Made famous by two Hollywood films, the title of “Top Gun” has its roots in the U.S. Air Force’s first Aerial Gunnery Meet, held in 1949 at Las Vegas Air Force Base—and won by Tuskegee Airmen.
Just two months before deactivation, the 332nd Fighter Group sent four of their best pilots to compete against other USAF units from across the country, testing their skills in aerial gunnery, rocketry, skip-bombing, and dive-bombing. Flying older P-47 fighters, the 332nd took the lead early and kept it throughout the competition, eventually taking first place in the propeller-driven category.
At the awards ceremony, the winning pilots were met with silence instead of applause. For the next five decades, their accomplishments disappeared from the pages of Air Force history, and their hard-won trophy vanished. In the 1990s, the records of the meet were discovered and the record set straight, and the trophy was found and placed on display.
First Lady, United States
First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, an unfaltering supporter of equal rights, took a well-publicized flight with Tuskegee Chief Flight Instructor “Chief” Charles A. Anderson. The First Lady flew with Anderson for more than an hour, which was likely the first time a First Lady flew in an aircraft with a black pilot.
During that trip to Tuskegee, Alabama, the First Lady also used her influence as a Julius Rosenwald Fund Trustee to provide funding to improve the Tuskegee Airfield to meet military standards. According to the Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project, she later admitted to using that photograph to persuade her husband, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, to allow the Tuskegee Airmen to be deployed in the war's North Africa and European Theaters.
Willa Beatrice Brown
Willa Brown was a woman of many firsts. In 1938, she was the first African American woman to earn a pilot's license and, in 1939, a commercial license and a Master Mechanic Certificate. Brown was also the first African American woman to become an officer in the Illinois Civil Air Patrol.
In 1940 she and Cornelius Coffey co-founded the Coffey School of Aeronautics on the South Side of Chicago. The first flight academy owned and operated by African Americans, the school trained hundreds of pilots and earned a reputation for excellence.
As a tireless leader and promoter of African American aviators, when Congress appropriated $5,675,000 for the Civil Aeronautics Authority (CAA) to begin 220 pilot training programs across the country, Brown aggressively went after the opportunity. The Coffey school was selected to provide black trainees for the Air Corps’ pilot training program at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. This pilot training program led to the creation of the Tuskegee Airmen, and Brown trained nearly 200 of the men who went on to become cadets or instructors.
Mary McLeod Bethune
Educator, Activist, Presidential Advisor
Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, the first in her family not to be born a slave, became one of the earliest black female activists to truly change the world. She made her way into the White House as an advisor to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, heading up what she called “The Black Cabinet.” She leveraged her close friendship with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to lay the framework for the Tuskegee Airman.
She established a fund for Black college students to attend the National Youth Administration’s Civilian Pilot Training program at six colleges and universities, including Tuskegee Institute, which resulted in the graduation of some of the first black pilots in the country. Her work also set the groundwork for the Army Air Corps program to accept African Americans to be trained to fly combat aircraft.
Connie Nappier, Jr.
For Connie Nappier, Jr., the dream to fly began when he saw his first airplane as a child. It was a dream that led him to enlist in the U.S. Army Air Forces after graduating from Weaver High School in 1943. He eventually found himself assigned to the all-black 477th Bomb Group, where he trained as a navigator and bombardier on B-25 Mitchell bombers. He would eventually fulfill his childhood dream and earn his pilot rating as well.
Although the war ended before he and the 477th could get overseas, Connie found himself caught up in an event of equal historical importance. In 1945, he and dozens of other Tuskegee Airmen from the 477th participated in the Freeman Field Mutiny, a nonviolent protest against the discrimination they faced from white officers in their chain of command. Their courageous stand against injustice helped encourage full integration of the armed forces and served as a model for the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s.
Photo :The 101 African American officers arrested at Freeman Field about to be transported to Goodman Field, Kentucky. This image was likely taken with a hidden camera by Master Sergeant Harold J. Beaulieu, Sr. Other photographs taken by another African American enlisted man were destroyed by a white officer on the spot.
36 Perimeter Rd
Windsor Locks, CT 06096