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Friday marks 80 years since Tuskegee Airmen’s first air battle

The Tuskegee Airmen shot down 409 German aircraft during World War II.
The Tuskegee Airmen shot down 409 German aircraft during World War II.

An important piece of Alabama history turns 80 this Friday. On June 9, 1943, the Tuskegee Airmen had their first air battle against German fighters over North Africa.

The airmen were escorting bombers over the Italian island, Pantelleria, before being attacked by German fighter planes. All Tuskegee Airmen survived.

The Tuskegee Airmen were the first African American pilots admitted into the U.S. military. They were also the only African American pilots enlisted during World War II.

While many airmen were not native Alabamians, the only place African Americans could initially receive their basic and advanced military training was near the city of Tuskegee in Alabama.

Alex Colvin is a public programs curator for the Alabama Department of Archives and History. She said the pilots helped combat both fascism abroad and racial inequality at home.

“These are people who are making huge contributions in World War II,” she said. “It’s a huge contribution of Alabamians in World War II. The Tuskegee Airmen are definitely a huge part in understanding the civil rights movement [and] how African Americans, even before what we kind of think of as the civil rights movement, are working toward greater equality.”

Over time, the Tuskegee Airmen represented not only 1,000 pilots but the more than 13,000 personnel who served with them.

The airmen achieved many feats during the war. They received three distinguished unit citations for flights over Italy and Germany and more than 60 Purple Hearts. They also helped prepare for the Allied invasion in Europe, took down German fighter jets while in Berlin and protected bombers.

Colvin said while the pilots did not outright end racial segregation in the U.S., they stood as major examples of equity and African American achievement.

“They’re showing not only the expertise of African American pilots, [but] they’re also showing that racial segregation that’s happening at home [and] ideas of race and racial superiority or inferiority are just wrong,” she said. “They’re all working toward proving they are fully citizens, and that they deserve that full citizenship.”

In 1948, U.S. President Harry Truman ordered the military be racially integrated. This meant that African American service members could now enter formerly all-white organizations. The Tuskegee Airmen were deactivated two years earlier. But the veterans were highly sought after once the U.S. Air Force unified.

No one knows how many of the original Tuskegee Airmen are still alive, though experts in 2021 speculated that only eight airmen remained. Two of the last living pilots have passed away in the last year.

Harold Brown, 98, passed away on January 12, 2023, in Ohio. Brown graduated from the training program in Tuskegee when he was just 19 years old in 1944. He completed 30 combat missions before becoming a prisoner of war. He would later return to Tuskegee to teach future pilots. He even served during the Korean War in the 1950s before relieving his duties in 1965.

Henry D. Polite, 96, passed away at his home in California on May 8, 2023. Polite was a crew chief and engineer during his time with the Tuskegee Airmen. After the war, he worked as an engineer for the Department of Defense for nearly 30 years. Former President George W. Bush awarded Polite the Congressional Medal of Honor, along with several other Tuskegee Airmen. He was married for 73 years.

All of the pilots continue to be celebrated today in Alabama. The Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site is open for Alabamians to visit every Wednesday through Saturday in Tuskegee. The site includes two hangar museums, housing real and replica-size planes, outdoor spaces and other site grounds. The Alabama Department of Archives and History also offers several primary sources that track the legacy and achievements of the air pilots.

The Hangar One Museum at The Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site at Moton Field in Tuskegee, Alabama.
The Hangar One Museum at The Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site at Moton Field in Tuskegee, Alabama.

Colvin said it is important to appreciate state history, including the Tuskegee Airmen.

“Today’s present is built on the past,” she said. “We should commemorate the past. We should look to the past because as we have come forward, that’s the building blocks for understanding the world that we’re in today. It’s this story of the humanity of people.”

More information on the Tuskegee Airmen can be found here:

Joshua LeBerte is a news intern for Alabama Public Radio.
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