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Remembering the Red Tails | Learn the stories of 49 Kansas, Missouri Tuskegee Airmen

Tuskegee Airmen
Posted at 5:00 PM, Mar 25, 2024

Editor's Note: Beginning March 25, 2024, KSHB 41 will air a three-part series on the Tuskegee Airmen with a focus on those who were born in Kansas and Missouri. Part one tells the story of Virgil Brashears, a second lieutenant in World War II from Kansas City, Missouri, through the words of his widow.

For the past five months, KSHB 41’s research uncovered 49 Tuskegee Airmen who were born in Kansas and Missouri.

The story of these airmen is one that most Americans don’t know about; KSHB 41’s goal is to share the stories of our local Tuskegee Airmen and the impressive and courageous roles they played in World War II.

This unheralded group of Black men served their country during World War II by escorting U.S. white bomber pilots across enemy lines, destroying German planes, ground units and even sinking a battleship destroyer.

In a time before the desegregation of the armed forces, when becoming a pilot was far beyond their dreams, these men faced humiliation and threats in training. All odds were against them, and yet, they wanted to serve their country.

“They had this pride that could not be torn, tattered or destroyed in any way,” said United States Rep. Emanuel Cleaver.

Of the nearly 1,000 Black men who became airmen, 68 were killed in combat in the 1940’s. Their missions are considered extremely successful.

Their impact on shaping race relations and social reform may have not registered with the Tuskegee Airmen at the time. However, today, the weight of their legacy has lifted a younger generation of Black men who dream of taking to the skies.

“The more we know our history, the more we can appreciate it, all of us,” said Cleaver.

Please scroll through the 49 biographies KSHB 41 compiled of the local Tuskegee Airmen from across Kansas and Missouri:

Fast facts about the Tuskegee Airmen:

  • The Tuskegee Airmen were the first Black pilots to serve in the U.S. military. The term is collectively used to include both the air and ground crews.
  • The U.S. Army Air Corps started the Tuskegee program to train Black men as pilots, bombardiers and navigators in the early 1940s. Before that time, the segregated U.S. military did not allow African Americans to train as pilots.
  • The Tuskegee Institute (now University) was given the Army Air Corps contract to train Black aviators because it had invested in the development of an airfield, had a proven civilian pilot training program and had the highest scores on the flight aptitude exams.
  • The Tuskegee Institute trained nearly 1,000 Black pilots between 1941-1946. Of those pilots, 352 served missions overseas. More than 1,400 personnel were also trained to provide operational support for the pilots and their planes.
  • The Tuskegee Airmen flew hundreds of patrol and attack missions for the Twelfth Air Force, flying P-40 and P-39 airplanes. They were then reassigned to the 15th Air Force to escort B-17 and B-24 heavy bombers, using P-47 and P-51 airplanes.
  • The famous “Tuskegee Airmen” of the 332nd Fighter Group became part of the 15th Air Force, escorting American bombers as they flew over Italy.
  • As escorts flying P-47s and later P-51s, the Tuskegee Airmen were responsible for protecting larger bombers from German fighter planes.
  • The Tuskegee Airmen flew more than 15,000 sorties – a combat mission of an individual plane -- between May 1943 and June 1945.
  • Sixty-six Tuskegee Airmen died in combat. They had one of the lowest loss records of any escort fighter group.
  • The Tuskegee Airmen were nicknamed the “Red Tails” because of the distinctive red on the tails of their planes.
  • The Tuskegee Airmen shot down 112 enemy planes during World War II.
  • The 332nd Fighter Group was awarded the Distinguished Unit Citation for their actions on March 24, 1945. On their way to Berlin, Germany, that day the Red Tails destroyed three German ME-262 planes.
  • The Tuskegee Airmen earned a total of eight Purple Hearts, 14 Bronze Stars, three Distinguished Unit Citations and 96 Distinguished Flying Crosses.
  • On March 29, 2007, the Tuskegee Airmen received the Congressional Gold Medal in recognition of their service. This is the highest civilian honor in the United States. Three hundred Tuskegee Airmen attended the ceremony at the U.S. Capitol. During the ceremony, President Bush saluted the Red Tails, saying: “I would like to offer a gesture to help atone for all the unreturned salutes and unforgivable indignities. And so, on behalf of the office I hold, and a country that honors you, I salute you for the service to the United States of America.”

Eleanor Roosevelt's Support of the Tuskegee Airmen:

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was a strong advocate of the Tuskegee Institute and its groundbreaking program to train Black military pilots. The wife of then-president Franklin Delano Roosevelt showed her support when she visited the Tuskegee Army Field in 1941 and asked one of the pilots to take her up in a plane.

According to the FDR Presidential Library, “Chief Civilian Flight Instructor Charles Alfred Anderson, known today as “The Father of Black Aviation,” piloted Mrs. Roosevelt over the skies of Alabama for over an hour.”

The library adds: “Flying with Anderson demonstrated the depth of Eleanor Roosevelt’s support for Black pilots and the Institute’s training program. Press coverage of her adventure in flight helped advocate for the competency of these pilots and boosted the Institute's visibility.

The library said Mrs. Roosevelt stayed in touch with some of the Tuskegee Airmen after her visit.

KSHB 41 would like to thank the following for the information and photographs for this project:

Tuskegee University’s Archives

CAF RISE ABOVE

Heart of America Chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen of America, Inc.

U.S. Air Force Historical Research Agency, Maxwell Air Force Base

The United States Air Force

The Air Force Historical Support Division

The University of Kansas’ Spencer Research Library

The Truman Library

The American Aviation Historical Society

The Coffeyville Aviation Heritage Museum

The National World War II Museum

The Library of Congress

The White House

The Atlantic magazine

The Chicago Tribune

The Kansas City Call

The Washington Post

Times Record

Webster-Kirkwood Times

Cleveland.com