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Tuskegee Airmen are part of Walterboro’s history

During Black History month, it is only fitting to honor Walterboro’s own Tuskegee Airmen, a group of black pilots who trained in Walterboro, and then went on to make a very significant contribution to the air campaign during World War II.

The Walterboro Army Airfield opened in August of 1942, and was a sub-base of the Columbia Army Airbase. The base in Walterboro was the largest sub-base of the 3rd Air Force. It served as a final training area for pilots prior to overseas duty, and housed a military population of 6,000 or more, and, in addition, hundreds of German Prisoners of War.

“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 Tuskegee Airmen officially formed the 332nd Fighter Group and the 477th Bombardment Group of the United States Army Air Corps, which became the United States Army Air Forces late June of 1941.

The Tuskegee Airmen officially formed the 332nd Fighter Group and the 477th Bombardment Group of the United States Army Air Corps, which became the United States Army Air Forces late June of 1941.

The Tuskegee Airmen were the first African-American military pilots in the United States armed forces. However, during World War II, African-Americans in several states within the country were still subject to the Jim Crow laws.

Jim Crow laws were legal and civil restrictions that kept white and African-Americans apart during the latter 1800’s and early 1900’s. In 1868, the American law-making U.S. Congress passed the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guaranteed all Americans equal rights. In many southern states, however, local governing bodies passed laws that divided African-Americans from white Americans in public locations. As an example of some of these regulations, African-Americans could not use water fountains labeled as “whites-only.” The U.S. Supreme Court upheld these restrictions in several of their rulings. Perhaps the most noted of these was a case called ‘Plessy verses Ferguson,’ which upheld a Louisiana statute that demanded separate-but-equal facilities for whites and African- Americans in railroad cars. For the next half-century, state governments cited this ruling to defend segregation within public facilities, which included hospitals, schools, and restrooms.

The American military was racially segregated, as was much of the federal government. The Tuskegee Airmen were subjected to racial discrimination, both within and outside the army. Despite these adversities, they trained and flew with distinction. Most black military pilots who trained in the United States trained at Tuskegee, including five Haitians.

Although the 477th Bombardment Group “worked up” on North American B-25 Mitchell bombers, they never served in combat; the Tuskegee 332nd Fighter Group was the only operational unit, first sent overseas as part of Operation Torch, then seeing action in Sicily and Italy, before being deployed as bomber escorts in Europe, where they were very successful.

The Tuskegee Airmen initially were equipped with Curtiss P-40 Warhawk fighter-bomber aircraft, briefly with Bell P-39 Airacobras (March 1944), later with Republic P-47 Thunderbolts (June–July 1944), and finally with the aircraft with which they became most commonly associated, the North American P-51 Mustang (July 1944). When the pilots of the 332nd Fighter Group painted the tails of their P-47s and later, P-51s, red, the nickname “Red Tails” was coined. Bomber crews applied a more effusive “Red-Tail Angels” sobriquet.

The aviators trained locally at the Walterboro Airfield before being sent to fight overseas. The Walterboro field, as well as almost every other southeastern airfield suffered from the problem of racism against black officers. This problem fell on the shoulders of Major General Frank O’Driscoll Hunter, the commander of the First Army Air Force. During one of his field visits, Hunter told black officers, “This country is not ready or willing to accept a colored officer as the equal of a white one. You are not in the Army to advance your race. Your prime purpose should be in taking your training and fighting for your country and winning the war. In that way, you can do a great deal for both your race and your country. As for racial agitators, they shall be weeded out and dealt with.”

Two of the Tuskegee Airmen, Charles Dryden and Alexander Jefferson, described what happened when he and other men arrived at the Walterboro Airfield. As a troop train he and the others arrived at what Dryden described as the “Godforsaken Walterboro Army Base,”

Jefferson described his feelings as the troop train backed into the Walterboro Army Airfield. “When our train backed onto the base, we were greeted by white soldiers in full battle dress. There they stood, one every 30 feet along both sides of the train, with rifles and bayonets at the ready.”

Flying units at Walterboro included:

The 310th Bomb Group, who flew B-25s in 1942; Campaigns were in Tunisia, Sicily, Naples-Foggia, Rome-Arno, Southern France, Northern Apennines, Rhineland, Central Europe, and Po Valley.

The 321st Bomb Group, who flew B-25s in 1942; Campaigns were in Tunisia, Sicily, Naples-Foggia, Anzio, Rome-Arno, Southern France, Northern Apennines, Central Europe, and Po Valley.

The 340th Bomb Group, who flew B-25s in 1943; Campaigns were in Tunisia, Naples-Foggia, Anzio, Rome-Arno, Southern France, North Apennines, and Po Valley.

The 345th Bomb Group, who flew B-25s in 1943; Campaigns were in Japan, China Defensive, New Guinea, Bismark Archipelago, Western Pacific, Leyte, Luzon, and China Offensive.

The 339th Fighter Bomb Group, who flew A-24s, P-39s, and P-51s in 1943; Campaigns were in Europe, Normandy, Northern France, Rhineland, Ardennes-Alsace, and Central Europe.

The 405th Fighter Bomb Group, who flew A-24s and P-39s in 1943; Campaigns were in Europe, Normandy, Northern France, Rhineland, Ardennes-Alsace, and Central Europe.

The 48th Fighter Bomb Group, who flew P-39s, and P-47s in 1944; Campaigns were in the anti-submarine, American Theater, Europe, Normandy, Northern France, Rhineland, Ardennes-Alsace, and Central Europe.

126AABFU Air Corps Basic Unit in 1943-45; Campaigns were in North Africa, Sicily, Italy, and Europe.

The Tuskegee Airmen earned their nickname as “Red Tail Angels” because of the red paint on the tail and propeller of their planes and the fact that bomber pilots and crews considered their fighter escorts as angels. The Walterboro Army Airfield Memorial Park, which includes historical information, plaques, pictures, and statues related to the Tuskegee Airmen, was completed at Walterboro Airport in the mid 1990’s. A ribbon cutting occurred to commemorate the park’s opening on May 27, 2005.