Prior to the start of World War II, no African American had ever been allowed to fly in the United States military. Although a number of men submitted applications to be aerial observers during World War 1, all were rejected in the harsh climate of institutionalized racism and segregation in the military. After almost two decades of advocating from leaders in the NAACP, the United States Congress passed Appropriations Bill Public Law 18 in April of 1939 which allocated funds for the training of African-American aviators. The 99th Pursuit Squadron came into being during 1941 as the first all African-American flight unit in the country’s history. With Nazi Germany devouring most of Europe and Japan’s imperialist conquest of the south Pacific, the United States saw the impending war in would be drawn into and the massive scale and new military technologies demanded a full utilization of all its resources, even sectors of the population traditionally excluded from fully participating in military conflict.
The Tuskegee program began with close to 500 pilots and began combat missions in 1943. The 99th Pursuit Squadron and 332nd Fighter Group were the only two black units to see combat during the war but their skill and dedication quickly distinguished them as pilots of the highest caliber even in the continued presence of racism and discrimination in the Army Air Corps. Officers still experienced segregation in clubs, slow promotion relative to white officers, and even local businesses around the base would not wash uniforms of the pilots, although they laundered clothes of captured German soldiers. The Tuskegee Airmen would fly missions in the Mediterranean, the Allied invasion of Sicily, and the European Theater for the rest of the war. The pilots would eventually be considered some of the finest aviators to have flown during the conflict.
In addition to the Tuskegee Airmen, a number of other all African-American units served with distinction during the war. President Truman signed Executive Order 9981 and effectively ended segregation in the military. The Airmen were in high demand throughout all sectors of the newly formed United States Air Force. These developments would also play a pivotal role in the birth of the American civil rights movements. It was impact of World War II’s weakening of structural racism and Jim Crow in the military that would inspire African American men returning from the war to see the opportunity for this drastic change to extend to other areas of American society.