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Davis Leads the 99th Into Combat

Segregation required the 99th Fighter Squadron to have a black leader. After three white officers commanded the squadron, 1st Lt. George S. Roberts became the first black to command the squadron in June 1942. In August 1942, Capt. Benjamin O. Davis Jr. was chosen to lead the outfit overseas. One of just two black line officers in the Army -- the other was his father, the first African American general in the U.S. Army -- Capt. Davis was a West Point graduate. He possessed the leadership skills and personal strength necessary to overcome racism and to make him an effective combat leader. Davis later became the U.S. Air Force's first African American general.

Tuskegee graduated its first five USAAF fighter pilots on March 7, 1942, and more soon followed. After completing their training, the 99th Pursuit Squadron (later Fighter Squadron) went to North Africa. Flying Curtis P-40 Warhawks, they were attached to the all-white 33rd Fighter Group at Fordjouna, Tunisia, in the spring of 1943.

On June 2, 1943, the 99th saw its first combat as the Allies secured the Italian island of Pantellaria. On July 2, the unit scored its first aerial victory against the Luftwaffe when 1st Lt. Charles B. Hall shot down a Focke-Wulf Fw 190 on his eighth mission. Their first losses occurred that same day as Lts. Sherman White and James McCullin were killed.

Just three months into its combat tour, the 99th was accused of lacking discipline and aggressiveness. Davis saved the squadron by explaining that, unlike white units, the 99th had no experienced veterans to guide them. Also, they flew against the best of the Luftwaffe while outnumbered and flying less capable P-40s. In fact, the 99th flew more missions per pilot than other units and never ran from a fight.

Given more time and experience, the 99th Fighter Squadron proved itself in combat. One of the Tuskegee Airmen's best days came on Jan. 27, 1944. On that day, 16 99th fighters attacked 15 German Focke-Wulf Fw 190s dive-bombing Allied shipping near the beachhead at Anzio, Italy. During the ensuing engagement, the 99th shot down 10 enemy airplanes.

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