February 9, 1996
The competence, courage and commitment of the Tuskegee Airmen, a World War II escort group comprised of African-Americans pilots and the only Army Air Force fighter group never to lose a bomber to enemy planes, will be honored at the Johnson Space Center's Black History Month observance on Monday, Feb. 12.
The keynote speaker for the event will be retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Herbert Carter, a member of the original cadre of the 99th Fighter Squadron in World War II. During his military career, Carter flew 77 operational missions in five different types of fighter aircraft. His military decorations include the Air Medal with four clusters, Air Force Commendation Medal, Distinguished Unit Citation, European Theater Medal with five Bronze stars, National Defense Medal, and the Air Force Longevity Medal. Today, Carter is president of the Tuskegee Alabama Chapter, Tuskegee Airmen Inc.
The Tuskegee Airmen were founded as a result of legislation enforced by the U.S. Government. The Civilian Pilot Training Act, passed on April 3, 1939, gave African-Americans the opportunity to train as pilots and a chance to prove that they could learn to fly. The law, however, did not grant them acceptance as military pilots in the Army Air Corps. On July 19, 1941, the first 13 cadets at Tuskegee Army Air Base began military pilot training. A total of 992 pilots graduated from the Tuskegee Army Air Base.
The 99th Fighter Squadron1s first combat assignment, a strafing mission against the heavily fortified island of Pantelleria, took place on June 2, 1943. The assault on Pantelleria caused the Italian island to surrender on June 11, 1943. For the first time in history, air power alone had completely destroyed all enemy resistance. The 332nd Fighter Group, known as the "Red Tails" because of the distinctive painting of the 72 P-51 mustang aircraft, flew 1,578 missions, destroyed or damaged more than 950 vehicles on the ground and 400 enemy aircraft, and sank a German destroyer. The 332nd Fighter Group received three Distinguished Unit Citations praising them for outstanding performance of duty.
The Tuskegee Airmen, despite immense odds and frequent rejection by those who would not accept them as fully equal, proved to themselves and to others that perseverance and preparation led to their excellent performance and a place in, not only black history, but also in American history. Many of these men became successful leaders. Among the most outstanding graduates of Tuskegee was Daniel "Chappie" James, the first African-American appointed a four-star Air Force general. Upon returning to civilian life, many men of the 332nd Fighter Group became successful business executives, religious leaders, lawyers, doctors, educators and political leaders.
"Lt. Col. Carter and the other Tuskegee Airmen have opened many doors for today1s African-Americans and for generations to come," said Patricia Burke of JSC's Equal Opportunity Programs Office. "Their contributions have made an impact on U. S. history and the U.S. space program. They were among the forerunners to NASA1s African-American engineers, scientists and astronauts."
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