Memorial Day: The Tuskegee Airmen

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Each year, on the last Monday in May, the United States celebrates Memorial Day, a holiday that honors Americans who gave their lives for their country. Originally, Memorial Day honored military personnel who died in the American Civil War (1861-1865). The holiday now also honors those who died in any war while serving the United States.

From Valley Forge to the Alamo to Gettysburg to Pearl Harbor to Normandy to the Tet Offensive to Iraq and Afghanistan, many heroic men and women have fought and died for the United States. From the American Revolution to today, approximately 1 ¼ million Americans have been killed in war. About half of these deaths occurred during the Civil War. Today, we’ll focus on one group of brave U.S. military heroes from World War II (1939-1945)— the Tuskegee Airmen, a group of African Americans who served in the Army Air Corps.

The Tuskegee Airmen were the United States’ first black pilots. At the time of World War II, the United States War Department had a policy of racial segregation. Blacks were trained separately from whites and served in separate units. In 1941, the Army Air Corps began accepting black men and admitting them into flight training. Nearly 1,000 men were trained at Tuskegee Army Air Base, near Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University), a college for blacks in rural Alabama. One of the first men to earn the wings of an Army Air Corps pilot was Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., who later became the first black general in the U.S. Air Force.

About 445 of the Tuskegee Airmen fought in Europe, flying more than 1,500 missions. Many of them became decorated war heroes. A total of 66 of the Tuskegee Airmen were killed in action and another 32 were held as prisoners of war. The airmen were great flyers and proved that skin color didn’t affect a person’s skills. The success of the Tuskegee Airmen helped lead to a decision by the United States government calling for an end to racial discrimination in the military. In 2007, the United States awarded the Tuskegee Airmen the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian award given by Congress.

Click here to check out our BOLT book on the Tuskegee Airmen.

Image Credit: U.S. Air Force

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