The U.S. military was racially segregated during World War II. Reflecting American society and law at the time, most black Soldiers and Sailors were restricted to labor battalions and other support positions. An experiment in the U.S. Army Air Forces, however, showed that given equal opportunity and training, black Americans could fly, command and support combat units as well as anyone.
The black fliers, known as “Tuskegee Airmen,” served with distinction in combat and directly contributed to the eventual integration of the U.S. armed services, with the Air Force leading the way.
In 1946, the 332nd Fighter Group Tuskegee Airmen made their way in a squadron deployment to Luke Air Force Base in an attempt to get away from the snow and ice of Michigan so they could continue their mission. One of the aircraft they flew into WWII combat was the P-51 Mustang, which was also at Luke in 1946.
Tuskegee Airmen and the P-51 will be together again March 15 and 16 for the “Lightning in the Desert” Open House and Air Show at Luke.
The rich heritage of the Tuskegee Airmen will be featured in an interactive display during the two-day event, said retired Lt. Col. Larry Jackson, Tuskegee Airmen, Inc. Western region president. The display includes a traveling movie theater with a 160-degree curved panoramic screen as well as a photographic display of the Airmen’s exploits. Original Tuskegee Airmen will be alongside the exhibit to answer questions and sign autographs.
“The Tuskegee Airmen have close ties to the 944th Fighter Wing because the 301st and 302nd fighter squadrons were under the 944th FW. The two were WWII Tuskegee Airmen squadrons within the 332nd Fighter Group,” Jackson said. “The Tuskegee Airmen and local chapter members are invited to many functions hosted by the 944th and 56th fighter wings.”
Though the Tuskegee Airmen heritage squadrons are no longer active at Luke, there is an effort to remember the contributions of these Airmen.
“We try to keep our relationship with the Tuskegee Airmen strong,” said Maj. Elizabeth Magnusson, 944th FW Public Affairs chief. “They have inspired generations and continue to inspire us.”
The P-51 Mustang the Tuskegee Airmen flew in WWII dramatically improved the success of the Allied Forces because of its ability to fly longer distances to escort bombers deeper into enemy territory.
“During WWII, if you flew the bombers unescorted you could lose an unacceptable number of them,” said Rick Griset, 56th FW historian. “The P-51 was the answer to the question of needing a long-range escort for the bombers.”
The success of the Tuskegee Airmen was thanks in part to the P-51’s ability to fire 1,880 rounds from its six 50-caliber machine guns and its combat range of about 800 miles.
“Many historians consider the P-51 the premier fighter of the war,” Griset said.
It is a rare opportunity to meet original Tuskegee Airmen and see one of the fighters they flew in a single place, Jackson said. The historical significance of these Airmen cannot be overstated.
“These men and women led the way for integration of the Armed Forces and were at the forefront of the civil rights movement in the U.S.,” he said. “As a retired pilot, I know I stand on the shoulders of the Tuskegee Airmen. They made it possible for me to do what I have done.”
For more information on the “Lightning in the Desert” Open House and Air Show, visit www.luke.af.mil and click the Open House and Air Show graphic.
Portions of this article were taken from the National Museum of the United States Air Force