The World War II training experiences of the Tuskegee Airmen at Oscoda Army Air Field.

Author:Vaughan, David K.

Increasing recognition has been deservedly given to the Tuskegee Airmen, the black pilots who received their initial training at the Tuskegee Institute during World War II. Although the phrase Tuskegee Airmen was not used during the war, it became widely known after it first appeared as the title of Charles Francis' 1955 book about the African-American pilots who flew in the war. These men were named Tuskegee Airmen after the flying field near Tuskegee, Alabama, where one of the first educational institutions intended for blacks had been established after the conclusion of the Civil War. Once approved by the U. S. Government, flight training began at Tuskegee in 1941, and a training program was established that lasted throughout the war. All African-American pilots who flew in World War II learned to fly at the Tuskegee Airfield, and many African-American enlisted men who served in black aviation units were trained there as well. While the term Tuskegee Airmen initially referred to only the pilots and other flight crew members, such as navigators and bombardiers, it was soon expanded to include the enlisted men who supported and maintained the aircraft flown by the black airmen.

The first graduates of the Tuskegee flying program formed the core of the 99th Fighter Squadron, which was sent directly to North Africa in April, 1943, after the successful conclusion of Operation Torch, the Allied invasion of North Africa. There the pilots of the 99th refined their flying and gunnery techniques before being assigned to combat duty. The 99th flew in combat in North Africa and the Mediterranean Theater for several months. The next, much larger, group of Tuskegee-trained pilots was assigned to the 332nd Fighter Group, but instead of being sent directly to a combat theater, as the 99th had been, they were sent to airfields in the United States to practice their flying and gunnery skills. The 100th was the first of three squadrons assigned to the 332nd Pursuit Group, all of which were manned by black pilots; the other two squadrons in the group were the 301st and 302nd Fighter Squadrons. In spring 1943, shortly after the 99th Fighter Squadron was dispatched to North Africa, the pilots and ground support men of the 332nd Fighter Group were assigned to Selfridge Field, located twenty miles northeast of Detroit. Soon after their arrival at Selfridge, most of the black pilots and enlisted men were sent to an army airfield farther north, at Oscoda, Michigan, to practice their gunnery and bombing skills and complete their operational training. The training program at Oscoda was conducted from April to December, 1943.

Most historical accounts of the Tuskegee Airmen mention the training conducted at Oscoda briefly, if at all, suggesting that the bulk of training was conducted at Selfridge Field. However, the combat training conducted at Oscoda was extended, intensive, and thorough. The men who trained at Oscoda occupied field facilities for extensive periods of time during their training; they were assigned to the field at Oscoda, they took off from the field at Oscoda, they flew their gunnery missions in the local area, and they returned to land at Oscoda. In addition, most of the elements of the 96th Service Group, a support group with units consisting of African-American enlisted men, were assigned to the army flying field at Oscoda for the full nine-month period to provide administrative and maintenance assistance for the men involved in flying operations there.

Most of the men who were sent to Oscoda remained at the field for weeks at a time, the final group of men leaving Michigan in December, 1943, when the three squadrons of the 332nd Fighter Group, the 100th, the 301st, and the 302nd, were deployed to the European war zone. Even though Selfridge Field was the operational center of the units assigned to the Group, and Oscoda was referred to as a "sub-base" of Selfridge during this period, it could be safely said that Oscoda was the real training base for the men of the 332nd Fighter Group, not Selfridge Field. The story of the training of these African-American pilots and their support personnel at Oscoda deserves to be better and more completely known.

Flight Training at Tuskegee

Soon after Congress passed the Selective Service Act of 1940, which was intended to end racial discrimination in selection of recruits for the Armed Forces, the War Department announced the establishment of the 99th Pursuit Squadron. The 99th was officially activated at Chanute Field, Illinois, on March 22, 1941, and was intended to consist of African-American pilots and support personnel. Because there were as yet no African-American pilots, the squadron initially consisting of a few white officers and enlisted men. The Army then took steps to establish a flying training program for African-Americans. Six institutions were selected to offer Civilian Pilot Training Programs (CPTP) for African-Americans: Tuskegee Institute, Howard University, West Virginia State College, Delaware State College, North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College, and Hampton Institute. (1) The CPTP was administered by civilians, not military personnel, and its goal was to prepare American men as potential pilots in the military forces, if and when America should be involved in the war. General Hap Arnold initiated the CPTP plan early in 1940, to avoid a shortage of pilots like that which had occurred when America entered World War I. Arnold expected that the European war would eventually involve American military forces, and he did not want the American military to lack qualified aviators when it did.

Unwilling to integrate black pilot trainees with white trainees, the Army determined to establish a military flight training base at one of the CPTP locations serving black pilots. The decision narrowed to Hampton Roads or Tuskegee. On April 19, 1941, Eleanor Roosevelt, a staunch supporter of equal rights for African-Americans, visited Tuskegee Institute. When she asked "Can negroes really fly airplanes?" she was invited to go for a ride in a Piper J3 Cub, one of the small training aircraft on the field, flown by a black pilot, Charles "Chief" Anderson. A photo taken at that moment shows a smiling Eleanor Roosevelt sitting in the back of the Piper Cub with Chief Anderson at the controls of the aircraft. (2)

The first class started flight training at Tuskegee three months later; this class included Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., son of the first black army officer to achieve the rank of general; Davis was the first black aviator to solo an airplane in the military training program at Tuskegee. From that date until March 23, 1946, sixty pilot training classes were conducted at Tuskegee, which graduated nearly 1000 pilots. (3) The program at Tuskegee benefitted from the willing participation of the cadre of white officers who conducted the training, foremost among whom was its commanding officer, Colonel Noel Parrish. Many of the men who were part of the first seventeen classes, those who graduated after November, 1942 but prior to August, 1943, became part of the 332nd Fighter Group, and were assigned to one of the three squadrons that that were a part of the 332nd Group, the 100th Fighter Squadron, the 301st Fighter Squadron, and the 302nd Fighter Squadron.

The Development of the 332nd Fighter Group at Tuskegee and its Transfer to Selfridge Field

On October 13, 1941, the Army Air Forces activated the 332nd Pursuit Group. This action occurred six months after the formation of the 99th Pursuit Squadron and two months before the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor. Its initial commanding officer was Major (later Lieutenant Colonel) Sam Westbrook, a white West Point graduate. However, because all of the first graduating Tuskegee pilots had been assigned to the newly formed 99th Pursuit Squadron, the 332nd remained largely a skeleton unit, with only a few enlisted men placed in the unit for administrative duties. The 100th Pursuit Squadron, the first squadron to be assigned to the 332nd Pursuit Group, was established according to orders issued on December 27, 1941 and February 19, 1942. (4) (Later in 1942, all Pursuit designations were changed to Fighter designations, and the 332nd became the 332nd Fighter Group and the 100th Pursuit Squadron became the 100th Fighter Squadron.) By the end of December 1942, the manning strength of the 100th Fighter Squadron had increased from one officer and fifteen enlisted white men to 75 officers and 934 enlisted men, of whom the great majority were black. (5)

During 1943 the 332nd Fighter Group and its associated squadrons were transformed from skeleton units to combat-ready units. On January 15, 1943, the emblem of the 332nd Fighter Group was approved. The central image of the unit patch was a black panther breathing fire, a patch design that was generally preferred over the other squadron patch designs. On that date 1st Lt Frederick E. Miles, a non-flying officer, was assigned as commanding officer of the 301st Fighter Squadron, the second fighter squadron assigned to the Group. On January 26, 1st Lt Mac Ross was assigned as commanding officer of the 100th Fighter Squadron, and the 366th and 367th Service Squadrons and the 43rd Medical Support Platoon were assigned to the 96th Air Service Group; their tasks were to provide support services for the fighter squadrons of the 332nd Fighter Group. (6) At this time these units were located at Tuskegee Airfield. The second and third squadrons assigned to the 332nd Fighter Group were the 301st and 302nd Fighter Squadrons. Much later, after the Group was assigned to a combat theater in Europe, the 99th Fighter Squadron officially joined the Group as well.

By the middle of March, 1943, the number of pilots and enlisted men at Tuskegee had grown significantly. The men of the 99th Fighter Squadron had been waiting for further training since they had graduated from their pilot training...

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