African-American flyers fought two battles in World War II: one against a foreign enemy and another against a domestic enemy--racial prejudice. The latter highlighted a bitter irony about the United States' role in what some cynically called the "Good War." Namely, a nation fighting for the cause of democracy against totalitarian forces, while its own armed forces were racially segregated with large numbers in their ranks and treated as inferiors. This unfortunate situation reflected much of the nation's society. The Tuskegee Airmen ultimately triumphed against both enemies. This victory paralleled the story of the equally gallant and courageous Japanese-American U. S. Army infantry 442d Combat Team of World War II. (1)
The story of the Tuskegee Airmen has been told by historians, biographers, and in memoirs of several Tuskegee Airmen themselves. Unfortunately, an error committed by some historians has marred the telling. This flaw--that has persisted to the present day--concerns the fate of two of the Tuskegee Airmen, 1st Lt. Sherman H. White, Jr. and 2d Lt. James L. McCullin.
When flight training commenced for the first of the Army Air Forces (AAF) African-American aviation cadets at Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama, the three phases of training--Primary, Basic, and Advanced--were as rigorous as those of any other AAF aviation cadets. The initial classes at Tuskegee Army Air Field were small as were the number of graduates. Sherman White was among only five to graduate with Class 42-E on May 20, 1942. James McCullin was among nine to graduate with Class 42-H on September 6, 1942. (2)
The numbers in subsequent classes increased as news spread of these first black flight trainees in the history of the American armed forces. There was a special pride in these young men and those who knew them when they were successful in attaining the rank of second lieutenant and wearing the silver wings of an Army Air Forces pilot. (3) White and McCullin were among the initial pilots assigned to the 99th Pursuit (later Fighter) Squadron, the first black tactical air unit in the history of the American Armed Forces. The first commanding officer (CO) of the 99th was Lt. Col. Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., a West Pointer and son of the Army's first African-American general officer, Benjamin Davis, Sr. The younger Davis had received flight training as a captain with the first class of cadets to graduate at Tuskegee Army Air Field. (4)
Early in 1943, the 99th Fighter Squadron moved to North Africa, where it completed its training for combat duty. The squadron did not participate in the North African Campaign; Allied forces inflicted the final defeat on the Axis forces before the 99th was ready for combat. In June 1943, pilots of the 99th took off on their initial combat missions. The squadron, along with other Allied air units, flew in support of the Allied assault on the Axis-held islands of Pantelleria and Sicily, "stepping stones" across the Mediterranean leading to Italy. The 99th was based on an airfield at Ferdjourna, Tunisia. It was equipped with Curtiss P-40 Warhawks, obsolete aircraft compared to the standard Bf 109s and FW-190s flown by the Luftwaffe. (5)
The official squadron history, written monthly by the squadron's intelligence officer, reported the combat missions of June 1943: "Our pilots had their first mission on June 2, 1943. They did not encounter the enemy on this mission.... Pilots of the 99th Fighter Squadron had an average of two missions daily from June 2 to June 9, 1943. The missions were varied; some were to bomb gun positions on Pantelleria Island, others to serve as escorts for A-20s and B-25s." On June 9, pilots of the 99th had their first sighting of airborne German fighters, while escorting A-20 light bombers over Pantelleria. The enemy fled before any contact was made and Allied forces took the island on June 11.
The rest of June was "comparatively quiet" for 99th pilots. One exception was on June 18, when in a dogfight between P-40s and Bf 109s, 1st Lt. Lee Rayford's Warhawk took hits on the right wing, becoming the first 99th Squadron aircraft to be damaged by enemy fighter fire. Rayford made it safely...