The U.S. Army Air Force's experimental flying unit, being rigidly segregated, required a black leader. Capt. Benjamin O. Davis Jr. was chosen to lead the outfit because he was one of only two black line officers in the Army -- the other was his father. Capt. Davis was a West Point graduate whose leadership skills and personal strength in overcoming racism helped make him an effective combat leader. He would eventually become the U.S. Air Force's first black general.
Led by Davis, Tuskegee's first group of five men graduated as USAAF fighter pilots on March 7, 1942. The 99th Pursuit Squadron added personnel and trained for a year before finally being sent to North Africa in the spring of 1943. They were attached to the 33rd Fighter Group at Fordjouna, Tunisia.
Flying P-40 Warhawks, the 99th first saw combat on June 2, 1943, as the Allies secured the Italian island of Pantellaria. The unit scored its first aerial victory against the Luftwaffe on July 2 when Lt. Charles B. Hall shot down a Focke Wulf Fw 190 on his eighth mission. The unit's first losses occurred the same day as Lts. Sherman White and James McCullin were killed.
Trouble followed as time passed. Three months into its combat tour, the 99th was accused of lacking discipline and aggressiveness and was nearly dissolved. Davis saved them, explaining that, unlike white units, they had no experienced veterans to guide them.