By Samantha L. Quigley

They may not have broken the sound barrier in their P-51 Mustangs, but the Tuskegee Airmen broke through the barrier that—until World War II—kept African Americans from becoming military pilots. In the process, they advanced the civil rights movement at home.

Becoming the Famed Tuskegee Airmen

This storied group of flyboys had humble beginnings. Prior to the war, it was falsely believed they weren’t qualified to serve in combat and so they were denied military leadership positions and skills training. They persevered, however, and overcame segregation and prejudice to become lauded war heroes.

But their success didn’t start on their terms.

“They created the Tuskegee Airmen as an experimental program,” said Dr. Roscoe C. Brown Jr., a Tuskegee pilot.

“They went to colleges—black and white—and recruited the smartest and the best athletes … and leaders. So, we had an excellent group of people.”

The experimental program that Brown referred to was an Army Air Corps program to teach African Americans to fly and maintain combat aircraft. The experiment included training for pilots, navigators, bombardiers, maintenance and support staff, instructors and the personnel who kept the planes in the air.

The first aviation class of Tuskegee Airmen—13 cadets in size—commenced July 19, 1941, with ground training. Navigation, meteorology and instruments training were among the courses at the Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama. The military chose the institute for its dedication to aeronautical training. Cadets who succeeded in this phase of the training were transferred to the segregated Tuskegee Army Air Field to complete their pilot training. Five of the 13 cadets finished successfully and earned their wings, becoming the nation’s first black military pilots.

Battle Tested in Germany and Beyond

Those first pilots went on to serve with the 332nd Fighter Group, which was officially formed October 13, 1942. Another 350 pilots joined the ranks of the Tuskegee Airmen in various squadrons of the 332nd Fighter Group during the war.

Brown—one of those pilots—eventually became the commander of the 332nd Fighter Group’s 100th Fighter Squadron. His leadership contributed to the unit’s distinguished combat record.

“When we went into combat, we flew as a separate, segregated group … because that’s the way the military was,” Brown said. “We flew with the 15th Air Force in P-51s on long-range bomber escort missions deep into Germany and very far into southern Europe.“

Photo credit Air Force photo

Maj. James A. Ellison, commandant of the Tuskegee Army Flying School, left, returns the salute of Mac Ross, one of the first graduates, as he passes down the line during review of the first class.

“Because of our record of staying close to bombers and not having many of them shot down, we gained the reputation of being one of the best fighter groups in the military. In addition, we were also among the first fighter groups to actually shoot down the new German jets.”

In fact, Brown is credited with being among the first pilots to shoot down one of Germany’s new Messerschmitt Me 262, the first operational fighter jet, during the 15th Air Force’s longest mission. He was 23 at the time.

By the end of the war, he’d flown 68 combat missions and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal with eight Oak Leaf Clusters and the Presidential Unit Citation. As a whole, the Tuskegee Airmen earned 96 Distinguished Flying Crosses.

Building a Legacy and Advancing Civil Rights

But even as Brown was leading his squad in combat, he knew they were under not only the military’s microscope, but that of the whole United States.

“I come from a generation … where those of us who went to college knew that we had to be better than whites in order to succeed and that every time we broke a barrier, we were opening the door for others. The Tuskegee Airmen were part of these barrier breakers,” Brown said.

"We knew we were being watched every step of the way. We loved to fly and we were pretty damn good. We were leading by example.”

As it was, the group of men, and eventually a few women, were helping pave the way for an integrated military and—on a larger scale—an integrated American society. This was realized when, as the first official act of integration, President Harry S. Truman ordered the military desegregated in 1948. This preceded Brown vs. Board of Education, one of the most visible civil rights victories, by six years.

“In order to defeat prejudice, you have to give people information and the information [you have to give them] is that you are excellent—as good as they are or better. Then, some of the resistance comes down,” he said.

My mantra is excellence hopes to overcome prejudice. Our path was to seek as much excellence as we could.

And that they did. Many of the Tuskegee Airmen stayed in the military—some going on to achieve the rank of general. Brown separated from the Army Air Corps as a captain and resumed his education, pursuing a doctorate. He’s spent the years since as a college professor, president and director of research institutions. Most recently, he consulted on a film that shined a light on the Tuskegee Airmen. The George Lucas film “Red Tails” tells the story of the pilots and their role in the military’s desegregation.

“George Lucas brought us out to Skywalker Ranch—several of us—to interview us and then had me and some others look at the script,” Brown said. “Then Lee Archer, myself and a couple of others went over to help instruct the actors on how to be fighter pilots.

“All in all, I think it came out very well,” he said. “They did a damn good job and it’s a very exciting movie.”

“Red Tails,” which describes the tails of the P-51 Mustangs the Tuskegee Airmen flew, hit theaters in January 2012, but Brown said there’s a powerful message in the DVD’s extras. The DVD includes not only the movie but a documentary titled “Double Victory.”

“That really was the mantra of African-Americans fighting in the war—victory over the enemy overseas and victory over segregation and discrimination at home,” he said. “We … beat the Army by 1945, but we didn’t really get the civil rights law passed until 1964.”

It certainly seems that, at least for Brown, the loop has been closed. The movie ends with President Barack Obama’s inauguration. A shot of the crowd shows Brown sitting with his daughter who marched on Washington with him in 1963.

-This story first appeared on USO.org in 2012. It has been edited in 2020.