RANTOUL, Ill. — On March 22, 1941, the 99th Pursuit Squadron — the first unit of the Tuskegee Airmen — was activated not in Tuskegee, Ala., but at an Army Air Corps training facility in Illinois known as Chanute Field.
The squadron made up solely of African-American personnel, the first of its kind in the U.S. Army Air Corps, would go on to distinguish itself during World War II, initially as an elite ground attack unit, and later as a heavy bomber escort unit after joining the all-black 332nd Fighter Group
Mark Hanson, curator of Chanute Air Museum, revisited Chanute's history with the squadron due to the recent release of the movie "Red Tails."
The 99th fought not only the Germans and Italians during World War II, it also had to fight prejudice from leaders who thought African-Americans weren't smart enough to handle mechanical tasks needed to keep the planes operational — much less to fly them.
So ingrained was that thinking by Army brass, Hanson said, that they initially expected African-Americans to require three years for technical training that would take whites one year to complete.
"One of the reasons the Army Air Corps felt it needed to start training these technical people before they started training the pilots was because technical training would take so much longer," Hanson said. "They had no faith in being able to train these guys. As it turned out, it took them less than a year."
Hanson said the men of the 99th had one of the highest cumulative grade-point averages of any group stationed at Chanute.
Few know of Chanute's role in the start-up of the 99th, which later became redesignated the 99th Fighter Squadron.
"I think one of the reasons Chanute doesn't get much attention is because these men were here less than a year," Hanson said.
But Ken Rapier, president of the Chicago DODO Chapter of Tuskegee Airmen, said if it weren't for segregation, the 99th would likely have been called "The Chanute Airmen."
"They had to create a segregated base for the Tuskegee Airmen to get the flight training," Rapier said.
Many think of the Tuskegee Airmen solely as pilots, but it was everyone who was assigned to the 99th Pursuit Squadron and later 332nd Fighter Group, he said.
"If you want to get down to the first Tuskegee Airmen, they were the ones stationed at Chanute," Hanson said.
Nearly a century after the end of the Civil War, much of the United States remained segregated. And that included the U.S. military.
The thought of African-American pilots was foreign to many military brass. The 1940 U.S. Census recorded only 140 African-American pilots in the nation.
The 1940 Selective Training and Service Act required no discrimination based on race or color. Congressional pressure as well as outside pressure from lobbyists required the Air Corps to form the 99th.
"Because it was an all-black unit, everyone had to be trained. There was no one with experience in the squadron, and experienced white personnel could not be brought in because of segregation," Hanson said.
The Army did have African-American soldiers in service work such as cooking, but not the Army Air Corps. A group of black soldiers was specifically transferred to Chanute to serve the 99th. White men were not allowed to work in a service capacity for black personnel. Training initially was segregated, which meant that separate classes had to be taught to groups based on race. That was later changed because of mere practicality. Chanute Field was one of the first military installations to be partially integrated.
When the 99th personnel arrived at Chanute, the base was undergoing a transformation as U.S. involvement in World War II loomed.
"During that time, Chanute was undergoing a lot of rebuilding," Hanson said. "New barracks were being built. Hangars were being completed."
The 99th was assigned to old World War I barracks in the area that would later become the Caddyshack officers club.
Because a railroad spur ran near the barracks, some of the 99th veterans joked "their barracks were across the tracks from everyone else," Hanson said.
Five white officers were assigned to oversee the squadron at Chanute because no black officers were available. Six aviation cadets as well as a large number of technical support personnel were also trained at the Rantoul base.
They ranged from aircraft mechanics to machinists, welders, radio operators and armorers.
"By far the largest group was the aircraft mechanic trainees," Hanson said. "There were 162 of them."
After completion of their training, they headed in November 1941 to Tuskegee.
Meanwhile, pilot training began in July in Tuskegee.
The first class completed training in March 1942 and included Capt. Benjamin O. Davis Jr., 2nd Lt. George S. Roberts, 2nd Lt. Mac Ross, 2nd Lt. Lemuel R. Custis and 2nd Lt. Charles H. DeBow Jr.
Roberts remained in the Army and later the Air Force after the war. He came to Chanute and became one of the first black commanders of a training wing at the base.
The Tuskegee Airmen performed well during the war "despite not having equal opportunities," Hanson said.
But their involvement was delayed. After training, the pilots sat at Tuskegee for a period.
"The Air Corps had a problem. They didn't know what to do with these guys," Hanson said. "They considered having them do coastal patrol off Liberia."
After pressure was exerted by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, among others, the 99th finally was sent overseas, first to North Africa after most of the fighting was over and then to Sicily before the invasion of Italy. But they were relegated to doing close-air support flying, dropping bombs on ground targets.
"They were heavily involved in the landings at Anzio south of Rome," Hanson said.
During that time, the 99th was attached to white fighter groups because no other units for African-American pilots had been formed.
Some Army Air Corps brass complained that the 99th was doing a poor job, when in fact it was doing just as well as the white units.
It was only after a strong defense of the 99th by Davis — who would command the Airmen and later become the first general in the U.S. Air Force — and a study by a congressional committee revealed the 99th's flying prowess, that talk of disbanding the 99th and newly formed all-black 332nd Fighter Group ceased.
The 332nd Fighter Group, composed of three more all-black fighter squadrons, was deployed to Italy early in 1944. The 99th was eventually assigned to the 332nd.
After initially flying P-40 Warhawk fighters, the 99th was eventually provided with P-51 Mustangs along with the rest of the 332nd, as the fighter group's primary role became heavy bomber escort.
They became known as "Red Tails" or "Red Tail Angels" because of their bright florid tails and aft fuselages. Most fighters were painted distinctive colors so they could be more easily recognized by their cohorts.
Depending on whom you believe, Chanute — which would not become an Air Force base until that branch of the service was formed in September 1947 — was selected to train the 99th personnel either because it was considered one of the best technical training facilities or because no other base wanted them.
Whatever the reason, the 99th's training is part of the rich history of Chanute.
Despite the Airmen's distinguished record, no African-American pilot was allowed to fly commercially until nearly 20 years after the war. "After World War II, even though the Tuskegee Airmen were proven superior pilots, they were not given the ability to fly commercially," Rapier said.
He said the DODO Chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen is named after the dodo bird — an bird of the island of Mauritius that lost its ability to fly — because, like the dodo, the Airmen lost the ability to fly.
David Harris, who was hired by American Airlines in 1964, became the first African-American commercial pilot.
Information from: The News-Gazette, http://www.news-gazette.com