The Tuskegee Airmen were a highly respected fighter group formed in 1941. Prior to 1940, African-Americans were not permitted to fly with the U.S. military. Thanks to advocacy by civil rights groups and others, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed legislation in 1940 which prohibited racial restrictions on voluntary enlistments in the military and allowed African-Americans to serve in all branches of the Armed Forces, including the Army Air Corps (although on a segregated basis). This led to the development and founding of an African-American pursuit squadron to be based and trained at Tuskegee, Alabama.
In March 1941, the 99th Pursuit Squadron was formed, placed under the command of a white officer, Capt. Harold Maddux, and populated with African-American enlisted men. By July 1941, the first class of African-American cadets had entered pre-flight training at the Tuskegee Army Airfield. After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the need for trained pilots escalated, and by March 1942, the first class of advanced pilot cadets at the Tuskegee Army Airfield had completed their training.
With this new class of highly trained pilots, segregation policies in place at the time demanded that these groups have their own support staff, which included maintenance crews, weather officers, and others. The 99th Pursuit Squadron included five enlisted men who were trained as weather observers. Although some of these men were college-educated, there was still a need for trained meteorologists to provide forecasts and briefings for operations.
Even as late as July 1940, there were only 62 qualified weather officers in the entire U.S. Army, as the field of meteorology and weather forecasting as a science was just beginning to take off. In the entire country at that time, there were only about 377 meteorologists. This included those in the Army, about 150 with the Weather Bureau (predecessor to the National Weather Service), those in the Navy, those with private commercial airlines, and those in academia. At the time, there were no African-American meteorologists employed by the Weather Bureau available for commissioning or enlisting in the armed forces.
Lieutenant Wallace P. Reed was commissioned as the Air Corps’ first African-American weather officer in February 1942. Lt. (later Capt.) Reed had a background in mathematics from the University of New Hampshire. After completing his training in meteorology, Lt. Reed was assigned to lead the newly-formed Tuskegee Weather Detachment in March 1942. Lt. Reed established an operational weather station on the base, and developed the Detachment so that it was able to provide forecasts and weather briefings for officers and instructors.
Despite the ever-increasing need for weather officers, prejudices and policies of the day prevented many qualified African-American candidates from entering the rigorous training program which would allow them to provide meteorological support services for aviation operations in the military. However, a number of African-American officers did enter and complete the Army Air Forces Technical Training Command (AAF TTC) program for meteorology. Many of these individuals held undergraduate and graduate degrees in Mathematics, Chemistry, Physics and other technical fields from prominent universities such as Xavier, Lincoln University (Missouri), and the University of Chicago.
Included among these trailblazing men was Dr. Charles E. Anderson, the first African-American to earn a PhD in meteorology. In an interview conducted in 1992, Dr. Anderson recalled his modest upbringing during the Depression in Missouri and credits his mother’s determination to read to he and his siblings for stimulating his interest in many subjects, including science. Dr. Anderson completed the AAF TTC program in meteorology at the University of Chicago in 1943. From there, he was assigned to the Tuskegee Weather Detachment, and served in the Army until 1948. He later attended MIT, where he completed his PhD in 1960. Dr. Anderson went on to serve in leadership positions in highly regarded meteorology and atmospheric science programs at the University of Wisconsin/Madison and North Carolina State University. The American Meteorological Society gives an award in his name “in recognition of outstanding contributions to the promotion of diversity in the atmospheric or related sciences and broader communities through education and community service.”
The Tuskegee Airmen, with the help of their support staff, completed numerous successful missions during World War II, many of which included escorting B-17 bombers on bombing raids over Europe. The heroism and dedication of these soldiers has been extensively written about since that time. In June 1945, the Tuskegee Weather Detachment was discontinued, and in October 1946 the Tuskegee Weather Station was officially closed.
Thanks to the persistence, dogged determination and heroism of these men, many pathways were opened in the field of meteorology and other sciences for minorities, women, and others. We as scientists can not only thank these individuals for their service to our country during World War II despite facing obstacles of prejudice and racism, but for their pioneering spirit and determination which has helped to advance the science of meteorology for us all.
Author note: Facts discussed in this article were contained in the following documents and websites:
Haulman, Daniel L.: Tuskegee Airmen Chronology. Organizational History Branch, Air Force Historical Research Agency, Maxwell AFB, AL, 26 February 2016.
Tuskegee Airmen, Inc.
White, Jr., Gerald A.: Tuskegee (Weather) Airmen: Black Meteorologists in World War II. Air Power History, Summer 2006, pg. 20-31.