RAMITELLI, Italy -- (From left) Lt. Dempsey W. Morgan, Lt. Carrol S. Woods, Lt. Robert H. Nelson Jr., Capt. Andrew D. Turner and Lt. Clarence D. Lester were pilots with the 332nd Fighter Group. The Airmen with the elite, all-black fighter group were better known as Tuskegee Airmen. (U.S. Air Force photo)
While the 99th Fighter Squadron made its mark in combat, Benjamin Davis had been sent back to the United States to take command of the 332nd Fighter Group, which absorbed the 99th into an all-black group of four squadrons. They left their P-40s and P-39s in favor of the robust P-47 Thunderbolt, and later the sleek P-51 Mustang. Davis, now a colonel, returned to lead the group. He was known as a strict disciplinarian and urged his men to prove themselves in combat as the best reply to racism.
The 332nd Fighter Group flew 179 bomber escort missions from June 1944 through the end of the war. The Tuskegee Airmen proved especially valuable in this role. While on escort missions, Davis' airmen performed with great skill and courage, on one occasion shooting down 13 German fighters. But despite its success, the 332nd was often outnumbered. On one mission, Davis' 39 aircraft attacked more than 100 German fighters, shooting down five and for the loss of one and earning Davis the Distinguished Flying Cross for bravery and leadership.
Tuskegee's airmen faced the best the Luftwaffe had, including the first jet fighters. On March 24, 1945, as the 332nd became one of the first Italy-based fighter unit to escort all B-17s all the way to Berlin and back, they met 25 German Me 262 jets. In the ensuing combat, three jets fell and the 332nd lost only one P-51. Significantly, the 332nd had completed the full 1,600-mile mission, for which it earned the Distinguished Unit Citation.
When the war in Europe ended, the 332nd Fighter Group had shot down 112 enemy aircraft and destroyed another 150 on the ground. Also, they knocked out more than 600 railroad cars, heavily damaged one destroyer and sank 40 boats and barges. Their losses included approximately 150 killed in combat or in accidents. During the war, Tuskegee had trained 992 pilots and sent 450 overseas. By any measure, the Tuskegee experiment was a resounding success.
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