Long, dangerous missions over enemy territory and bad weather sometimes meant that pilots returned to base with enough gas for just three minutes of flying time -- the time it takes to boil an egg. Some Tuskegee Airmen decided to form the “Three Minute Eggs Club,” with membership limited to those who landed within the narrow margin. Left to right are 1st Lt. Clarence W. Dart, 1st Lt. Wilson Eagleson, II and 2nd Lt. William Olsbrook (October 1944). (U.S. Air Force photo)
On Oct. 6, 1944, 2nd Lt. Andrew Marshall of the 301st Fighter Squadron parachuted to safety when his plane was shot down by flak during a strafing mission over Greece. Greek partisans hid Marshall from the Nazis and helped him escape back to his squadron. (U.S. Air Force photo)
1st Lt. Walter Westmoreland with his P-51C nicknamed Dopey. A member of the 302nd Fighter Squadron, he was shot down by enemy ground fire near Lake Balaton, Hungary, in October 1944 while returning from an escort mission to Blechhammer, Germany. (U.S. Air Force photo)
Red Tails of the 332nd Fighter Group take off to escort heavy bombers sent to bomb enemy oil fields at Blechhammer, Germany, on Aug. 7, 1944. Note the P-51s have wing tanks for the extra fuel needed for such long missions. (U.S. Air Force photo)
Benjamin O. Davis Jr. (1912-2002) became the USAF’s first African American general officer in 1954 and retired as a lieutenant general in 1970. He received his fourth star in 1998. (U.S. Air Force photo)
1st Lt. Roscoe Brown Jr. (right) and crew chief Marcellus G. Smith working on the engine of a 100th Fighter Squadron P-51 Mustang. On March 24, 1945, Brown shot down a German Me 262 jet fighter. (U.S. Air Force photo)
While the 99th Fighter Squadron continued to fight its way through Sicily and Italy alongside white units, Benjamin Davis returned to the United States to take command of the new 332nd Fighter Group. Another segregated unit, the 332nd included three fighter squadrons -- the 100th, 301st and 302nd -- equipped with Bell P-39 Airacobras. In February 1944, the 332nd entered combat for the first time, from its base at Montecorvino, Italy, attacking enemy supply lines. Within a few months, however, the unit exchanged its P-39s for Republic P-47 Thunderbolts to fly escort for 15th Air Force bombers.
In July 1944, the 99th Fighter Squadron, which had been flying close air support missions with its P-40s, joined the three other fighter squadrons of the 332nd Fighter Group, placing all the segregated Tuskegee Airmen on the same base. At that time, the 332nd replaced its P-40s and P-47s with sleek North American P-51 Mustangs. To identify themselves in combat, the 332nd Fighter Group painted the tails of their fighters bright red, which earned them the nickname "Red Tails."
Known as a strict disciplinarian, Col. Davis urged his men to prove themselves in combat as the best reply to racism. They flew 311 missions, of which 179 were escorting bombers, from June 1944 through the end of the war. The Tuskegee Airmen performed with great skill and courage, on one occasion shooting down 13 German fighters. Despite its success, however, the 332nd was often outnumbered. On one mission, Davis led 39 aircraft against more than 100 German fighters, shooting down five for the loss of one. It earned Davis the Distinguished Flying Cross for bravery and leadership.
Tuskegee Airmen faced the best the Luftwaffe had, including the first jet fighters. On March 24, 1945, the 332nd became one of the first Italy-based fighter units to escort B-17s all the way to Berlin and back. Along the way, they met 25 German Me 262 jets. In the ensuing combat, the 332nd shot down three of the eight jets destroyed that day and earned the 332nd a Distinguished Unit Citation.
During the war, Tuskegee trained around 990 pilots and sent 350 overseas. When the war in Europe ended, the Tuskegee Airmen had shot down 112 enemy aircraft, destroyed 150 aircraft on the ground, knocked out more than 600 railroad cars, and 40 boats and barges. Approximately 150 Tuskegee Airmen were killed in combat or in accidents, and 32 became prisoners of war. By any measure, the Tuskegee project proved a resounding success.
Col. Davis returned to the U.S. to command the 477th Medium Bombardment Group, which also trained at Tuskegee, but the war ended in Japan before the group saw action.
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