The Tuskegee Airmen were an elite group of African-American pilots in the 1940s. They were pioneers in equality and integration of the Armed Forces. The term “Tuskegee Airmen” refers to all who were involved in the Army Air Corps program to train African Americans to fly and maintain combat aircraft. The Tuskegee Airmen included pilots, navigators, bombardiers, maintenance and support staff, instructors, and all the personnel who kept the planes in the air.
The primary flight training for these aviators took place at the Division of Aeronautics of Tuskegee Institute. Air Corps officials built a separate facility at Tuskegee Army Air Field to train these black pilots. The Tuskegee Airmen not only battled enemies during wartime but also fought against racism and segregation, thus proving they were just as good as any other pilot. Racism was common during World War II, and many people did not want blacks to become pilots. They trained in overcrowded classrooms and airstrips, and suffered from the racist attitude of some military officials. The Tuskegee Airmen suffered many hardships, but they proved themselves to be world class pilots.
Even though the Tuskegee Airmen proved their worth as military pilots they were still forced to operate in segregated units and did not fight alongside their white countrymen. The men earned the nickname “Red Tail Angels” since the bombers considered their escorts “angels” and the red paint on the propeller and tail of their planes.
By the end of the war, 992 men had graduated from Negro Air Corps pilot training at Tuskegee; 450 were sent overseas for combat assignment. During the same period, about 150 lost their lives while in training or on combat flights, and 32 were held as POWs by the Nazis. These black Airmen managed to destroy or damage over 409 German airplanes, 950 ground units, and sank a battleship destroyer. They ran more than 200 bomber escort missions during World War II.
Yet, these same men returned to the US only to face continued discrimination. After the war the size of the armed forces was drastically reduced, and many of the Tuskegee Airmen returned to civilian life. But the war did not bring an end to the policy of segregation, and the Tuskegee Airmen who remained in uniform continued to serve in all-black flying units. Tuskegee Army Air Field was closed in 1946 and all the segregated flying units were concentrated at Lockbourne Air Base (just a few miles from our museum) in the 477th Composite Group, an all black unit with a squadron of P-47 fighters and another of B-25 bombers. The base remained segregated from March of 1946 until July of 1949, nearly a year after president Truman officially integrated the military.
One of our long-time board members until his death on 22 June 2002, Captain Harold Sawyer, was one of these valiant trail-blazers who shot down two Nazi planes in 1944 while flying his P-51 from a base in Italy. He was very active during the early years of our museum, and we are proud of him and his many contributions.
Left: Captain Harold Sawyer, P-51 pilot in WWII. Right: Pilot Capt. Harold E. Sawyer being awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross by Col. Noel F. Parrish, December 5, 1944 for extraordinary achievement while participating in aerial fight against the enemy in the Mediterranean Theater of Operation in WWII.
John H. Rosemond was a Tuskegee Airman and served as a navigator/bombardier in B-25 bombers during WWII. Following the war, he graduated in 1951 as a medical doctor from Howard University in Washington DC. He opened a successful family practice in Columbus and in 1969 he became the first black man elected to Columbus city council. He served three four-year terms and was nominated as the first black man to run for mayor of Columbus in 1975. Although he was defeated, he remained very influential with many boards and organizations until his death in 1991 at the age of 74. In 1996 he was posthumously inducted into the Ohio Veterans Hall of Fame. Our museum proudly displays his aviation flight jacket and his class photograph from WWII, donated by his widow, Rosie.
Left: Lt. John H. Rosemond, 1943–45 Tuskegee Airman. Right: Aviation flight jacket worn by Lt. John H. Rosemond.