Toni Frissell with Major George S. Spanky Roberts at Ramitelli, Italy, March, 1945. Public Domain /

By Mark McConville

HISTORIC footage and pictures of America’s first black military airmen have emerged showing them preparing to defend their country in World War Two despite the segregation they endured.

The rare footage shows the first class of black pilots in the history of the US Army Air Corps after they were graduated as second lieutenants by Major General George E. Stratemeyer in 1942.

Other war-time photographs show the Tuskegee Airmen, as they were known, attending briefings in Italy, inspecting and preparing their planes for flight and receiving escape kits before their missions which amounted to cyanide which was to be taken if they were captured.

Black fighter pilot series Escape kits (cyanide) being distributed to fighter pilots at air base in southern Italy, 1945. Public Domain /

The Tuskegee Airmen is the popular name of a group of African-American military pilots (fighter and bomber) who fought in World War Two.

Officially, they formed the 332nd Fighter Group and the 477th Bombardment Group of the United States Army Air Forces.

The name also applies to the navigators, bombardiers, mechanics, instructors, crew chiefs, nurses, cooks and other support personnel for the pilots.

Mar 1942 1st class of Negro pilots in history of US Army Air Corps who were graduated as second lieutenants by Major General George E. Stratemeyer. Public Domain /

All black military pilots who trained in the United States trained at Moton Field, the Tuskegee Army Air Field, and were educated at Tuskegee University, located near Tuskegee, Alabama.

During World War Two, black Americans in many US states were still subject to the Jim Crow laws and the American military was racially segregated, as was much of the federal government. The Tuskegee Airmen were subjected to discrimination, both within and outside the army.

Jim Crow laws were state and local laws that enforced racial segregation in the Southern United States. Enacted by white Democratic-dominated state legislatures in the late 19th century after the Reconstruction period, these laws continued to be enforced until 1965.

Members of the 332nd Fighter Group in Ramitelli, Italy, March 1945. Public Domain /

Although the 477th Bombardment Group trained with North American B-25 Mitchell bombers, they never served in combat.

The 99th Pursuit Squadron (later, 99th Fighter Squadron) was the first black flying squadron, and the first to deploy overseas (to North Africa in April 1943, and later to Sicily and Italy).

The 332nd Fighter Group, which originally included the 100th, 301st, and 302nd Fighter Squadrons, was the first black flying group.

The group deployed to Italy in early 1944. In June 1944, the 332nd Fighter Group began flying heavy bomber escort missions, and in July 1944, the 99th Fighter Squadron was assigned to the 332nd Fighter Group, which then had four fighter squadrons.

Tuskegee airmen playing cards in the officers’ club in the evening. Public Domain /