By Jeremy Borden

After flying 169 missions in World War II, Lieutenant Colonel Lee A. Archer, Jr. (Ret.) says that as a fighter pilot he wasn’t troubled by the “man-to-man” dogfights nearly as much as by what was coming at him from the ground.

Serving as a pilot with the all-African American Tuskegee Airmen, Archer vividly describes the missions over Europe and North Africa—the difficulty in taking out a train track or factory as German soldiers on the ground launched hundreds of red bullets with the objective of taking him out. At 90, he still remembers the anti-aircraft flack forming little black clouds in front of him that popped and rattled his P-51 from all sides as he led Allied bombers to their targets.

The 16,000 pilots and ground crew that travelled to an insufferably hot, dusty airfield in Tuskegee, Alabama, during World War II are known as the Tuskegee Airmen. These men would make up the 332nd Fighter Group, and they proved they could fly and do the job as well as anybody.

Escorting bombers—first in North Africa and later over Nazi-occupied Europe—the Airmen became known as “Red Tail Angels” for the bright red tails painted on the unit’s fighters. Under strict orders from their commander, then-Captain B.O. Davis (who would rise to the rank of general in 1998), one of the first black graduates from West Point, the Airmen were instructed not to leave a bomber’s side no matter what.

The Tuskegee Airmen took out rail facilities, oil refineries, ammunition depots, and other targets, while protecting B-17 and other bombers on their critical runs.

They helped turn the tide of the war.

The pilots and ground crew were living a dream; it had been a long road for minorities wanting to enter the Air Corps. Lieutenant Colonel Francis L. Horne (Ret.), a Tuskegee pilot, described in an interview for the Veterans History Project at the Library of Congress, how he would sit in the back of movie theaters as a young boy dreaming of adventure with the Royal Air Force. Later, when he wanted to serve, Horne said he was crushed when he saw a newsreel that said he would never be admitted into the Army Air Corps.

“During the newsreel, they showed the chief of the Air Corps, and he said that no Negroes would ever fly in the Air Corps,” Horne said. Still, he wrote letters asking to be accepted. Despite the fact the policy was changed in 1941, “I was surprised that the people actually answered my letter and told me to come out,” he said.

And, like Horne, many did come out to join the war effort for dominance in the skies. Although the Airmen helped pave the way for integration of the military in 1948, some said they weren’t thinking about the historic significance at the time—they had a job to do and wanted to do it well.

“I think most of us were just doing what we had to do during the war,” said James Pryde Sr. Now 83, Pryde served as a private during the war as well as worked as a radio operator. After Tuskegee, he went on to a storied career in the National Security Agency and was inducted into the organization’s Hall of Fame in 2006. “We didn’t know we were pioneers in those days. We all got to understand that we were successful when people started talking about the ‘Red Tail Angels’ and their stories during the war,” he recalled.

In fact, Pryde and others said it took a long time for the general public to recognize what the Tuskegee Airmen and other African American soldiers had accomplished throughout the course of the war.

Lieutenant Colonel Enoch “Woody” Woodhouse II (Ret.), who was commissioned in 1946, said many African Americans started to get a sense of what they had done when stationed at Lockbourne Air Base in Ohio after the war. Many African Americans were assigned to Lockbourne right after they came home, and what emerged was a sense of community and camaraderie. It was a formidable introduction to black history for Woodhouse, who would go on to stand at the front lines of history. He was one of the first black graduates of Yale in the 1950s, one of the first black Judge Advocates General in the U.S. Air Force, and the first black member of the 371-year-old Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company of Massachusetts.

At Lockbourne, Woodhouse was introduced to black Ph.D.s, doctors, and dentists. The men and their families stationed there formed a community and began swapping stories. They began to realize all that they had accomplished.

Setting up an African American flying unit had been called an “experiment” in 1941, and many thought that it would fail. The Tuskegee Airmen proved them wrong. After hundreds of dangerous missions for pilots, such as Archer and Horne, and the ground crews who helped get them there, the Airmen demonstrated that anything is possible.

America truly owes them a debt of gratitude.