ON THIS DATE in 1941, hundreds of young men, many still in their teens, gathered in Tuskegee, Alabama, to form the first all-African American flying unit. “We were just eighteen-year-old kids,” William Hopson told the Minneapolis Star Tribune in 2002, addressing the initial inexperience of what became known as the Tuskegee Airmen.

Before 1941, racism had prevented African Americans from piloting military aircraft, and prejudice still played a role as nearly 1,000 young men trained as pilots, navigators, bombardiers, and more at the Tuskegee Army Airfield. The U.S. army segregated blacks from whites in World War II, and the Tuskegee cadets had to contend with overcrowded classrooms stateside and harassment from racist flyers and officials when they fought overseas. “We knew that we always had to be better than anyone else,” Joe Gomer told the Star Tribune.

About 450 of the Tuskegee trainees fought overseas, and the all-African American units compiled a formidable combat record. According to the official site of the U.S. Air Force, the Tuskegee Airmen destroyed or damaged more than 409 German airplanes and 950 ground units. They also sank a battleship destroyer and flew more than 200 bomber escort missions. One-hundred-and-fifty lost their lives in World War II.

 Today, the Tuskegee Airmen are celebrated for their valor and for proving that African Americans could fly and fight with the best of them. In 1998, President Clinton approved a law that established the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site at the spot where the servicemen trained for aerial combat.

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