The United States entered World War II with a military that was segregated by race and remained segregated until 1948. War Department planners generally placed White and African-American Army personnel in separate units during World War II.
The 332d Fighter Group was constituted on 4 July 1942, and activated on 13 October, predominantly manned with African-American personnel. Consisted of the 100th, 301st and 302d Fighter Squadrons at Tuskegee Army Air Field, Alabama. Trained with P-39 Airacobra and P-40 Warhawk aircraft for an extended period of time as the Army Air Forces was reluctant to deploy African-American fighter pilots to an overseas combat theater. The 100th Fighter Squadron pre-dates the 332d Fighter Group, being formed on 19 February 1942. The 100th carried out advanced fighter training of graduates of the Tuskegee Institute primary and basic flight training programs for African-American flight cadets at nearby Moton Field. The first class (42-C) of twelve cadets and one student officer, Captain Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., who served as Commandant of Cadets, began training on 19 July 1941. On March 6, 1942 this class graduated with Davis and five of the original twelve cadets, 2Lt. Lemuel R. Custis, 2Lt. Charles DeBow, 2Lt. George S. Roberts, and 2Lt. Mac Ross. "Spanky" Roberts was actually the first cadet to receive a diploma and wings during the ceremony. He went on throughout the time of combat operations of the 99th Fighter Squadron and later when that squadron was assigned to the 332nd Fighter Group (which already consisted of three squadrons, 100th, 301st, and 302nd), to be the Deputy Commanding Officer and at times when Colonel Davis was away, he served as the Group Commander.
After difficulty in establishing a core of African American pilots and ground crews and providing for training at Tuskegee AAF and First Air Force stations in Michigan, by April 1943, the 332d Fighter Group deployed to Twelfth Air Force in the Mediterranean theater. The group's first combat assignment involved attacking enemy units on the strategic volcanic island of Pantelleria in the Mediterranean Sea, to clear the sea lanes for the Allied invasion of Sicily in July 1943. The air assault on the island began on 30 May 1943. The assignment to a predominately ground attack role prevented the 99th from engaging in air-to-air combat.
In September 1943 the unit was criticized by Col. William W. Momyer for "(failure) to display...aggressiveness and daring for combat" and recommended for removal from operations. Congressional hearings were held on this perceived failure, with the aim of disbanding the squadron. However, neither the recommendation nor the hearings shut down the unit after an AAF study reported that the 99th had performed as well as other P-40 units in the Mediterranean. In the meantime the 99th received a Distinguished Unit Citation for its performance in combat on Sicily. Shortly after a Washington hearing on the feasibility of continuing to use African American pilots, three new fighter squadrons graduated from training at Tuskegee: the 100th, 301st and 302nd. The units then embarked for Africa and were combined to form the all-black 332d Fighter Group.
The squadrons were moved to mainland Italy. On 27 and 28 January 1944, Luftwaffe Focke-Wulf Fw 190 fighter-bombers raided Anzio, where the Allies had conducted amphibious landings on 22 January. Attached to the 79th Fighter Group, 11 of the 99th Fighter Squadron's pilots shot down enemy fighters. Captain Charles B. Hall claimed two shot down, bringing his aerial victory total to three. The eight fighter squadrons defending Anzio together claimed 32 German aircraft shot down, while the 99th claimed the highest score among them with 13. They began operations with Twelfth Air Force on 5 February. They used P-39s to escort convoys, protect harbors, and fly armed reconnaissance missions, converted to P-47s during April–May, and changed to P-51s in June.
The 99th Fighter Squadron, assigned to the group on 1 May 1944, joined them on 6 June at Ramitelli Airfield, in the small city of Campomarino, on the Adriatic coast. From Ramitelli, the 332d Fighter Group escorted Fifteenth Air Force heavy strategic bombing raids into Czechoslovakia, Austria, Hungary, Poland and Germany from May 1944 to April 1945. The bombers struck objectives such as oil refineries, factories, airfields, and marshaling yards in Italy, France, Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Austria, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Romania, Bulgaria, and Greece. They also made successful strafing attacks on airdromes, railroads, highways, bridges, river traffic, troop concentrations, radar facilities, power stations, and other targets. Flying escort for heavy bombers, the 332d earned an impressive combat record. The Allies called these airmen "Red Tails" or "Red-Tail Angels," because of the distinctive crimson paint prominently visible on the tail section of the unit's aircraft. The unit received a Distinguished Unit Citation for a mission on 24 March 1945 when the group escorted B-17s during a raid on the Daimler-Benz tank factory at Berlin, fought the Messerschmitt Me 262 jet interceptors that attacked the formation, and strafed transportation facilities while flying back to the base in Italy. During the action, its pilots were credited with destroying three Me 262s of the Luftwaffe's all-jet Jagdgeschwader 7 in aerial combat that day, despite the American unit initially claiming 11 Me 262s on that particular mission. Upon examination of German records, JG 7 records, just four Me 262s were lost and all of the pilots survived. In return, the 463rd Bomb Group, one of the many B-17 groups the 332d were escorting, lost two bombers, and the 332d lost three P-51s during the mission. Fifteenth Air Force dispatched about 660 bombers, 250 of these headed for Berlin. Altogether, Fifteenth Air Force lost nine B-17s and one B-24, out of the fighter escort, five P-51 Mustangs were destroyed during this sortie. Three of the four Me 262 jets that were lost by the Luftwaffe were reportedly shot down, all their pilots bailed out wounded.
Flying escort for heavy bombers, the 332d earned an impressive combat record. Reportedly, the Luftwaffe awarded these airmen the nickname, "Schwarze Vogelmenschen," or "Black Birdmen." The Allies called these airmen "Redtails" or "Redtail Angels," because of the distinctive crimson paint applied on the vertical stabilizers of the unit's aircraft.
With the end of hostilities in Europe in May 1945, the 332d was reassigned to the 305th Bombardment Wing, to prepare for a move to the Pacific Theater and engage in combat against Japan. With the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the end of the war, this became unnecessary and the 332d returned to the United States and was assigned to Camp Kilmer, New Jersey, where it inactivated on 19 October 1945.