On March 19, 1941, the 99th Pursuit Squadron was activated -- its pilots were the first African-American military aviators in the history of the United States armed forces. The 99th formed the nucleus of other black squadrons training at Tuskegee and Maxwell fields. Combined, they formed the 332nd Fighter Group, the famed Tuskegee Airmen. In all, 994 pilots were trained at Tuskegee from 1941 to 1946, about 446 were deployed overseas, and 150 Airmen lost their lives in accidents or combat.
In spite of American society's rampant and institutionalized racism, and in spite of resistance from all levels of the U.S. military establishment, the 332nd trained to a high standard, and went on to distinguished service in North Africa and Itally during World War II. They were initially equipped with P-40 Warhawks, then after a succession of other fighter aircraft, flew the ultimate fighter of WWII, the P-51 Mustang. Initially most bomber groups (commanded and flown by white pilots) which the 332nd escorted on missions were astonished and reluctant to have their fighter protection in the hands of black pilots. But the 332nd's reputation for fierce air combat spread, and before long there was active competition for their presence, and with good reason. Even though the 332nd itself lost pilots and fighter aircraft, not a single bomber they were protecting ever was shot down by enemy fire. Not one. The distinctive all-red tail markings (see below) of the 332nd's fighters were a signal of security for U.S. pilots, and a signal of trouble for enemy pilots.
After the war, the Tuskegee Airmen returned to an ungrateful nation. Racism and ignorance remained the order of things, and the 332nd had to wait until March of 2007 to receive the national recognition it so richly deserved, the Congressional Gold Medal.