In a state where all too often African American history is studied in the context of slavery, a refreshing change is the tale of the Tuskegee Airmen, one of the most-lauded American military units of World War II. Though named for their origins at Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute, the pilots of the famed 332nd Fighter Group actually completed final training in Walterboro, South Carolina at Walterboro Army Airfield, where the regional airport now sits.
The U.S. military was segregated during World War II, with African Americans mostly relegated to support roles. An interesting exception was the case of the 332nd, formed in 1941 as the 99th Pursuit Squadron by an act of Congress and the only all-black flying unit in the American military at the time.
For the most part flying P-47 Thunderbolts and P-51 Mustangs, the pilots of the 332nd had one of the toughest missions of the war: escorting bombers over the skies of Germany and protecting them from Luftwaffe fighters. Though initially viewed with skepticism, the Tuskegee Airmen wasted no time in proving their mettle.
In fact, it wasn’t long before U.S. bomber crews — who were, needless to say, all white — specifically requested that they be escorted by the Airmen, who were given the nickname “Red-Tail Angels” because of the distinctive markings of their aircraft.
While legend has it that the 332nd never lost a bomber, this claim has been debunked. But as Tuskegee Airman Bill Holloman said: “The Tuskegee story is about pilots who rose above adversity and discrimination and opened a door once closed to black America, not about whether their record is perfect.”
The 332nd’s reputation for aggressiveness in air combat was so widely-known that the Germans also had a nickname for them — Schwartze Vogelmenschen, or “Black Bird Men.”
Today Walterboro honors the Airmen with a monument on the grounds of the Lowcountry Regional Airport, on U.S. 17 just northeast of town. In an easily accessible part of the airport grounds, the monument features a bronze statue and several interpretive exhibits.
Another place to catch up on Tuskegee Airmen history is at the Colleton Museum (239 N. Jefferies Blvd., 843/549-2303, Tues.–Fri. 10 a.m.–5 p.m., Sat. noon–4 p.m., free), which has a permanent exhibit on the pilots and their history in the Walterboro area.
Walterboro Army Airfield’s contribution to the war effort was not limited to the Tuskegee Airmen, however. Seven of the famed Doolittle Raiders were trained here, there was a compound for holding German prisoners of war, and it was also the site of the U.S. military’s largest camouflage school.
© Jim Morekis from Moon South Carolina, 4th Edition