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In honor of Black History Month, the Oregon Department of Veterans’ Affairs is spotlighting the military service of Black service members through history and profiling the many contributions they made to preserve our nation’s democracy and keep the United States safe and free.
The series will include historical articles recounting the achievements of several extraordinary Black military units who served before the United States Armed Forces was desegregated by presidential order in 1948, as well as profiles of Black service members who served during more recent eras of conflict.
Another unit born out of a time when segregation was the standard in American society and the military, the Tuskegee Airmen were destined to become one of the most celebrated and successful pilots in the history of the nation’s air warfare.
On March 7, 1942, the first class of cadets graduated from Tuskegee Army Air Field to become the nation’s first African American military pilots. They were eventually joined by over 16,000 Tuskegee Airmen trained in Alabama. Approximately 996 of those airmen were pilots, and out of them 352 were deployed and fought in combat.
While there were more African American men in the program, there were also male and female mechanics of different races, plus many women who operated as test pilots and parachute technicians.
Oftentimes, these Black airmen flew double the number of combat missions as white pilots, were treated poorly by fellow military members throughout their service and continued to experience racism despite being newly included into the pilot program, including while being overseas.
Despite these challenges, the Tuskegee Airmen served with honor and courage, helping the U.S. win World War II in August 1945. In total, The Tuskegee Airmen flew over 15,000 individual missions and shot down 112 enemy airplanes in World War II, according to the National World War II Museum.
On March 29, 2007, the Tuskegee Airmen were collectively awarded a Congressional Gold Medal at a ceremony in the U.S. Capitol rotunda. The medal is currently on display at the Smithsonian Institution. The airfield where the airmen trained is now the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site.
Several of the Tuskegee Airmen settled in or made their marks in Oregon, including Robert and Carl Deiz, Edgar Bolden and Benny “Flaps” Berry.