HISTORY HIGHLIGHT: African American Airmen make Air Force history

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Rosemary Howard
  • Vosler NCO Academy
There is no better way to celebrate African American History Month than to look at how the Air Force has benefited from the contributions of African American Airmen.

One of the first African American pilots to make history was Eugene Jacques Bullard. In August 1917, 30 years before the Air Force became an individual branch of the U.S. military, Bullard, an American volunteer in the French army, became the first black military pilot in history and the only black pilot in World War I.

Other contributions to the Air Force were from the Tuskegee Airmen of World War II, a group of African Americans who served in combat and contributed to the eventual integration of the U.S. Armed Services. The roots of the Tuskegee Airmen were formed in 1938 when the Roosevelt administration created a reserve of trained civilian fliers to serve in the event of a national emergency.

In 1940, the Selective Training and Service Act banned racial discrimination in recruitment, allowing African Americans to be trained for Air Corps service. The Tuskegee Institute participated in the Roosevelt administration's pilot training program and graduated its first civilian licensed pilots in May 1940. The Tuskegee Institute was the only source of black military pilots in World War II.

Tuskegee Airman Capt. Benjamin O. Davis Jr. was selected to lead the Tuskegee pilots because he was one of only two black line officers in the Army - the other was his father. Captain Davis was a West Point graduate who was placed in command of the 332nd Fighter Group, a unit that did not lose a single bomber to enemy fighters. Captain Davis later became the Air Force's first black general.

The Tuskegee pilots proved they were capable of serving in a highly technical field. The Air Force, having become a separate service in 1947, benefited from the experience of the Tuskegee Airmen and became a leading proponent in integrating the military. In fact, the Air Force was the first service to erase the color line, thanks largely to the efforts and courage African American Airmen demonstrated during World War II.

Gen. Daniel "Chappie" James Jr. was another Airman who had a great impact. General James received his commission as a second lieutenant in July 1943. During the Korean War, he flew 101 combat missions in F-51 and F-80 aircraft. In 1960 he was assigned to Bentwaters, England, where he served as assistant and director of operations and later, commanded two fighter wings. In 1973, General James was commander in chief, North American Air Defense Command. He was promoted to general on Sept. 1, 1975, and become the first African American to hold the highest Air Force rank. General James retired from active duty on Feb. 1, 1978. He was widely known for his patriotic speeches.

These are a few contributions African American Airmen have made to the Air Force. It is the contributions of these African American Airmen that set the standard for excellence in today's Air Force.

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