Claude Davis

Tuskegee Airman Claude Davis was a cadet in Class 44-GTE. Class 44-GTE translates into the seventh class of 1944 for twin-engine pilot training. Claude and the rest of the class were training to be B-25 Mitchell pilots and aircrew.

The first ten weeks of classes were considered “pre-flight.” This is when they learned about using the radio, basic meteorology, navigation, etc. Then came primary flight training where the cadets flew with their instructors in Stearman PT-17 biplanes or Fairchild PT-19 Cornells. Once the cadet had learned enough to show the instructor that they could safely take off, fly around a bit and then land the airplane, the instructor would allow them to fly solo.

Then they would go through basic training in the Vultee BT-13, learning how to fly a more complex airplane. In the BT-13, they would start making cross-country flights and learn some basic combat tactics.

The last step in the process was advanced training. For a twin-engine pilot, advanced training was in the Beechcraft AT-10, a twin-engine airplane made specifically for twin-engine instruction.

When they had successfully completed all of this flight training, they were introduced to the B-25 Mitchell bomber. For Claude Davis, this took place at Douglas Army Air base in Arizona. Claude loved the B-25. “That plane was great,” he recalled. “She was sweet – solid, easy to fly and very stable. We had to learn all about her – using oxygen in high altitudes, bombardment techniques, machine guns and so forth. It was great but really tough.”

All of Tuskegee’s twin-engine pilots and crews were now in the 477th Bombardment Group. The intent was to send the 477th into the Pacific War, but the war ended before they could deploy.

One great thing that all of this did was show 23-year-old Claude Davis that he could handle a B-25 with confidence. This confidence stayed with him the rest of his life, as it did with the rest of the 477th pilots.

Claude Davis in 2012 signing Stan Stoke's painting of Bob Friend’s P-51D “Bunny”.
Claude Davis in 2012 signing Stan Stoke’s painting of Bob Friend’s P-51D “Bunny”.

Herman “Ace” Lawson

Herman Lawson was from the Fresno area of California. He attended Marysville High School where he picked up the nickname “Ace” as the schools star football player.

After having a ride in a friend’s airplane, Lawson became interested in becoming a pilot. He took flying lessons and upon getting his license, he became one of the first African Americans in Northern California to earn a private pilot’s license.

He tried to join the U.S. Army Air Corps, but was initially turned down. Not taking no for an answer, he wrote letters to Congress and to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. That did the trick and he was accepted into the Army, reporting for training at Tuskegee.

He was in Class 42-I-SE at Tuskegee Army Airfield where he received his wings becoming a fighter pilot. He was then assigned to the 99th Fighter Squadron.

While flying combat in P-40 Warhawks, P-47 Thunderbolts and P-51 Mustangs, Lawson earned the Silver Star and the Distinguished Flying Cross. He flew 133 missions in World War II’s European Theater including Greece, Bulgaria, Germany, Austria, France, Poland, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia. He survived two engine failures while flying P-40s, one of these resulting in him ditching in the Mediterranean. Lawson later had another P-40 that he named “Ace of Pearls” named in honor of Lawson’s wife Pearl.

Herman “Ace” Lawson climbing into his P-40 Warhawk
Herman “Ace” Lawson climbing into his P-40 Warhawk

AT-6 Texan

In the flight training process, new cadets learned how to fly a small airplane, like a Piper Cub. After the Cub, they had dual instruction in an aircraft like the Boeing Stearman PT-17. At that point, they were transferred to Tuskegee Army Air Field for basic training in the Vultee BT-13.
The final step for the cadets at Tuskegee Army Air Field was flying in the front seat of an AT-6 Texan advanced trainer. The instructor sat in the back seat. The AT-6 was the most complex aircraft that the cadet had flown while in training. It was big, powerful and rugged. The AT-6 had retractable landing gear and a constant speed prop. They both added to the complexity of flying the aircraft for the new pilot.
Once the instructor signed off the cadet to fly the AT-6 solo, the cadet went out flying by himself to practice his piloting skills. He did landings, take-offs, aerobatic maneuvers, and generally became more comfortable flying in the big advanced trainer.
Then came the cross-country flights. The instructor and the cadet flew cross-country, airport to airport. If the instructor was satisfied with the cadet’s ability, he then signed off the cadet’s log book and the new pilot started making solo cross-country flights. During this final phase of instruction, the young pilot became a master of his aircraft and, at least in his own mind, transitioned from being a student to becoming a pilot.
The last thing that the instructor did was get the new pilot prepared to fly a fighter. The instructor taught the cadet everything that he needed to know about flying a high-spirited, powerful fighter. The new fighter pilot would then climb into the fighter pilot’s seat and the instructor would turn him loose. The fighters were all single seat, so the first time a brand new pilot flew a fighter, it was solo.
The first class of cadets, Spanky Roberts, Benjamin O. Davis, Ed Gleed, Mac Ross, and Lemuel Curtis with their instructor who is explaining the complexities of the AT-6 to them.

332nd Ground Crew

While the pilots tended to get the glory, the often overlooked finely tuned fighter squadron are the people who make everything work. The ground crew are people who might not be talked about much, but are essential to the success of the squadrons and their pilots.
Without the skill of the aircraft maintainers, the airplanes weren’t going anywhere. They were as intense about their aircraft as the pilots were. Most crew chiefs considered the aircraft to be theirs and would just lend them to the pilots occasionally. They acquired a strong bond with their airplanes and the pilots that they let fly them.
P-51 Mustangs were as temperamental as the horse they were named after. Powered by a Packard built, Rolls Royce “Merlin” V-12 liquid-cooled engine, the P-51 mechanics were as highly trained as the pilots. There were also the armorers who had to keep the guns and ammunition in top working condition.
Generally, after all the maintenance had been finished, the person within the squadron that had some artistic talent would be put to work creating the nose art. In the painting above, one of Jack Holsclaw’s ground crew is adorning Jack’s P-51 with the name “Bernice Baby”, named after his wife Bernice.
An armorer of the 332nd carefully preparing his P-51 for its next mission.
An armorer of the 332nd carefully preparing his P-51 for its next mission.

George “Spanky” Roberts

Airman George “Spanky” Roberts had already received his pilot’s license in the Civilian Pilot Training Program when he entered flight training in the first class at Tuskegee, Alabama. It was July 1941 and the US Army wasn’t convinced that young black men would make good military pilots. There were 13 pilot cadets in the first class and only 5 made it to the end to become US Army Air Corps fighter pilots. George Roberts was one of those five.
The 99th Fighter Squadron was formed with the five new pilots being the initial pilots. This was to be an all black squadron from top to bottom.
They had been trained to fly P-40 Warhawks in preparation to go to war. As additional Tuskegee cadets graduated into being USAAF pilots, they all were assigned to the 99th until it was finally at full strength. George Roberts became their commanding officer.
George Roberts and the rest of the 99th were deployed to North Africa. They were attached to the 33rd Fighter Group that was based close to Morocco. They flew their first combat on June 2, 1943.
In February 1944, all of the Tuskegee trained pilots, including the 99th Fighter Squadron, deployed to Italy as the 332nd Fighter Group. Roberts, now with the rank of Major, was the initial CO of the 332nd, until Benjamin O. Davis arrived to assume command. An air base was built for the group at Ramitelli, Italy. This is where the “Tuskegee Airmen” really made a name for themselves, first flying P-47 Thunderbolts for a couple of months, then their fabulous P-51 Mustangs. Benjamin O. Davis was the CO of the 332nd, but on the occasion when he needed to go back to the US, George Roberts would step in to be the Commanding Officer of the 332nd.
George “Spanky” Roberts ended the war with over 100 combat missions flown. He then went on to serve in Korea and ended his military career in 1968 with over 6,000 hours of flight time and the rank of Colonel.
Col. George "Spanky" Roberts in WWII
Col. George “Spanky” Roberts in WWII

Turner and Briggs

Andrew Turner enlisted into the US Army on October 8, 1942 as a member of class 42-I-SE at Tuskegee, Alabama. He received his wings and was inducted into the US Army Air Force on October 9, 1942.

He deployed into WWII with the 100th Fighter Squadron. After a mission in which the 100th’s commanding officer, Lt. Robert Tresville, failed to return, Turner assumed command of the 100th. He flew the P-51 Mustang for 69 combat missions before the war ended.

Two years after the war had ended, Major Andrew Turner was killed in a mid-air collision while flying a P-47 Thunderbolt.

Major Andrew Turner
Major Andrew Turner

John Briggs was a cadet in flight training at Tuskegee in class 43-E-SE. He was commissioned a 2nd lieutenant and flew combat missions out of Italy as a member of the 100th Fighter Squadron, 332nd Fighter Group.

During WWII, he flew 125 combat missions in the P-39 Bell Airacobra. This is where he escorted Navy ships to the Italian Anzio Beachhead and strafed ground targets; 70 combat missions in the P-47 Thunderbolt and the P-51 Mustang, strafing German airfields and escorting B-17 and B-24 bombers to their targets in Germany, Poland, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and Yugoslavia. He also downed a Messerschmitt ME-109 German fighter aircraft.

Major John Briggs died in June 2007 at the age of 86.

Major John Briggs
Major John Briggs

“Skipper’s Darling III”
In Stokes’ painting of the two pilots, the aircraft is Turner’s P-51C Mustang, “Skipper’s Darling III.” The P-51C was a great aircraft. When it was upgraded into the P-51D, it became arguably the best all-around fighter of WWII.


Tuskegee’s First Five

Tuskegee’s first five cadets to receive their wings and become official US Army Air Force pilots were in Class 42C-SE. This group of black pilots completed their pilot training on March 6, 1942, at Tuskegee Army Air Field, in Tuskegee, Alabama. Of the 13 original cadets, five graduated: Charles DeBow Jr., Benjamin O. Davis Jr., George “Spanky” Roberts, Mac Ross, and Lemuel Custis.
2nd Lieutenant Charles DeBow, Jr. was assigned to the 99th Fighter Squadron and deployed to North Africa. There, the 99th pilots flew the P-40F Warhawk. Later, when the 332nd Fighter Group was deployed to Italy, the 99th was reassigned to the group. Now flying the P-51 Mustang, DeBow flew 51 combat missions.
Captain Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. had already been an officer in the US Army for several years having graduated from West Point. He became the commanding officer of the 332nd Fighter Group and much later would be promoted all the way to four-star general.
2nd Lieutenant George “Spanky” Roberts would become Davis’ second in command of the 332nd Fighter Group. On the occasions that Davis would have to go back to Washington D.C. Roberts would step in to be the CO of the 332nd. He flew more than 100 combat missions. After the integration of the armed forces in 1948, Roberts became the first African American officer to command a racially integrated unit.
2nd Lieutenant Mac Ross was the first commanding officer of the 100th Fighter Squadron. He was then assigned the position of Group Operations Officer for the 332nd FG. He was the first of all of the Tuskegee-trained pilots to have to bail out of a stricken airplane (P-40 Warhawk). He completed more than 50 combat missions before losing his life in an accident flying a P-51 Mustang.
2nd Lieutenant Lemuel Custis flew 92 combat missions in the P-40 while assigned to the 99th Fighter Squadron, receiving the Distinguished Flying Cross for his heroism. He later returned to Tuskegee as an advanced flight instructor and was released from active military service from the U.S. Army Air Force in 1946 as a major.
Left to Right - Benjamin O. Davis, Lemuel Curtis, George “Spanky” Roberts, Charles DeBow, and Mac Ross.
Left to Right – Benjamin O. Davis, Lemuel Curtis, George “Spanky” Roberts, Charles DeBow, and Mac Ross.

Robert Diez

Robert Deiz was born on June 17, 1919, in Portland, Oregon.
Prior to World War II, in the late 1930s, Diez enrolled in the Civilian Pilot Training Program at Swan Island in Portland, Oregon, receiving his pilot’s license.
After graduation from the University of Oregon, Deiz joined the U.S. Army Air Corps. On September 6, 1942, Deiz graduated from the Tuskegee Flight School’s Single Engine Class SE-42-H, earning his wings and a commission as a 2nd Lieutenant. The Army Air Force assigned Deiz to the 99th Fighter Squadron.
During World War II, Deiz flew 93 missions. On January 27, 1944, Deiz shot down a German Focke-Wulf Fw 190, earning his first kill as a combat fighter pilot. The next day, Deiz earned his 2nd kill after shooting down another German Focke-Wulf Fw 190. After returning to the United States, Deiz became a B-25 aircraft instructor at Tuskegee.
Deiz served as a model for the popular 1943 “Keep Us Flying” World War II War Bonds poster created by Betsy Graves Reyneau, a white artist known for her portraits of prominent African-Americans that circulated as part of the Harmon Foundation’s traveling exhibition in the 1940s.
After the war, Deiz served as a test pilot, becoming one of the first pilots to fly a jet aircraft. He also attended the Army Command and General Staff School in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
In 1961, after 20 years in the military, Deiz retired from the U.S. Air Force in Columbus, Ohio with the rank of Major.
Robert Deiz in his P-40 Warhawk during WWII

Colonel William Campbell

Tuskegee Class SE-42-F. He graduated from the program on July 3, 1942 as a second lieutenant. Campbell was then assigned to the 99th Pursuit Squadron.
Campbell flew in the first combat mission of the 99th Pursuit Squadron on June 2, 1943.
Having completed a long first combat tour, Campbell was sent back to the US and flew as an instructor pilot. He volunteered to go back into combat and returned to Europe in 1944 as a Captain. On October 11, 1944, he joined the 332d Fighter Group. On October 29, 1944, he assumed command of the 99th Fighter Group as a full Major.
Campbell received the Distinguished Flying Cross on New Year’s Day 1945.
Three months later, on March 31, 1945, Campbell participated in a mission of the 332d Fighter Group to destroy railroads and other targets in the area surrounding Munich, Germany. The mission successfully shot down 13 enemy fighters; Campbell was credited for one of the 13 kills.
Over the course of World War II, Campbell actively served in the Sicilian and Italian campaigns and flew 106 missions, becoming the first African-American pilot to drop a bomb on enemy targets.
On April 15, 1945, Campbell earned his second Distinguished Flying Cross.
Following World War II, Maj. Campbell assumed the position of Group Commander of the 332nd Fighter Group on August 28, 1947. Campbell went on to fight in two more wars during his military career, as he served in both Korea and Vietnam. He remained in the service until 1970, reaching the rank of full colonel.
Black and white photo of William Campbell in WWII, wearing flying garb.
William Campbell in WWII.

Mac Ross

Ross’s alma mater, West Virginia State College (now West Virginia State University) had a Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP) created by the Civil Aeronautics Authority in 1939 to increase the number of active pilots in America in response to the ongoing war in Europe. The federal government had selected Tuskegee Institute as the official pilot training program site for African Americans pilots.
WVSC and the other four historically black colleges and universities would serve as feeder schools. WVSC officials nominated two alumni for the program: Mac Ross & George S. Roberts, a 1938 WVSC graduate. Ross was admitted into the U.S. Army Air Corps Tuskegee Aviation Cadet training program’s inaugural July 19, 1941 class at Tuskegee Army Air Field.
During cadet training, Ross’s P-40 caught fire in mid-air & he safely parachuted out; he was concerned it would be called pilot error and provide grounds for critics that blacks should not be flyers. He recalled thinking, “I’ve wrecked a ship worth thousands of dollars. Maybe they’ll start saying Negroes can’t fly”. An investigation found it was mechanical, but Ross always felt he and the others were under intense scrutiny every time they flew. The incident made him the first-ever African American member of the Caterpillar Club, an informal association of people who have successfully used a parachute to bail out of a disabled aircraft. His flight instructor Col. C. I. Williams said, “Mac was a good pilot. It takes a special kind of individual to be a good fighter pilot. He was a pilot’s pilot.”
On March 7, 1942, only five cadets successfully graduated from the program, receiving their wings: 2nd Lt. Ross, Captain Benjamin O. Davis Jr., 2nd Lt. Charles DeBow, 2nd Lt. Lemuel R. Custis, and 2nd Lt. George S. Roberts. Known as Class 42-C-S, they were the first African-American U.S. Army Air Corps pilots.
On May 26, 1942, Ross was promoted to Squadron Commander of the 332nd Fighter Group’s 100th Fighter Squadron.
During World War II, Ross flew over 50 combat missions in the European Theater. On July 10, 1944, Ross died in an aircraft accident while flying a P-51 Mustang.

Black and White Photo of Tuskegee Airman Mac Ross
Mac Ross in WWII.
  • No products in the cart.