Why was Executive Order No. 9981 so important?

The Tuskegee Airmen

The Tuskegee Airmen are shown here in training on Jan. 23, 1942.
The Tuskegee Airmen are shown here in training on Jan. 23, 1942.
AP Photo/U.S. Army Signal Corps

The U.S. military didn't allow African-Americans to fly planes in the service until civil rights organizations put pressure on the War Department in the late 1930s. By then, President Roosevelt had already been preparing for the possibility of entering the war by gearing up a pilot training program. In January 1941, the War Department created the 99th Pursuit Squadron of the U.S. Army Air Corps (the Air Force didn't exist yet).

The army used the Tuskegee Institute and airfield in Tuskegee, Ala., where the experimental African-American squadron would be trained in single-engine planes. The training location is why the squadron became informally known as the Tuskegee Airmen. To lead the unit, the army chose Capt. Benjamin O. Davis Jr., a strict disciplinarian who would later become the first African-American general in the Air Force. Davis encouraged his pilots to combat racism by proving their valor and skills in battle.

In July 1941, the first class began navigation and meteorology training. Those who qualified were transferred to the Tuskegee Army Air Field for pilot training. By the time the pilots graduated in March 1942, the United States was entrenched in World War II. However, the pilots trained for another year before showing their stuff in the Allied invasion of Italy. Their first mission took place on June 2, 1943. They flew P-40 Warhawks for an attack on Pantelleria, an Italian island. They also successfully fought the Luftwaffe, the German air force, a month later.

The relatively inexperienced squadron soon faced difficulties, however. Col. William M. Momyer, the commander of the 33rd Fighter Group that the Tuskegee squadron was then a part of, complained that the unit wasn't aggressive enough and lacked discipline [source: Sutherland]. The squadron was temporarily suspended from combat and might have been dissolved completely were it not for Davis, who pleaded their case. In January 1944, the squadron helped fight a German air invasion and shot down 12 planes; as a result, the War Department awarded the group a Distinguished Unit Citation.

By this time, the squadron was absorbed into the 332nd Fighter Group, a group of four all African-American squadrons that were formed after the original 99th squadron. Davis was also promoted to colonel to lead the 332nd. By the end of the war, more than 1,000 pilots trained at Tuskegee. The 332nd group lost only 150 pilots, while destroying more than 200 enemy planes in the sky and on the ground -- in addition to hundreds of railroad cars, dozens of boats and one destroyer.

Despite the undeniable success achieved by the Tuskegee Airmen and the 332nd Fighter Group, the military remained rigidly segregated by the war's end.