On June 2, 1943, the 99th Pursuit Squadron of the Tuskegee Airmen, flew its first combat mission during World War II, when it strafed the island of Pantelleria off the coast of Italy. 

By the war’s end, the 99th, which became known as the “Red Tails” by the distinctive tail markings on its planes, had flown more than 3,000 missions over Europe. It had taken part in the fighting in North Africa, Sicily, mainland Italy, and the bombing campaigns over the continent.

In 1941, the United States War Department (now the Department of Defense), and the Army Air Corps, which was soon to become the Army Air Forces (USAAF) finally, under considerable pressure, agreed to create the first African American flying unit, the 99th Pursuit Squadron. 

African Americans had been trying unsuccessfully to become pilots since World War I. The military at the time was segregated, for example most of the units that had served in the western U.S. (Buffalo Soldiers), had white officers assigned to them. African Americans had a tough time in even becoming civilian pilots.