Prior to the Tuskegee Airmen all combat pilots had been white. However a series of legislative moves by the United States Congress in 1941 forced the Air Corps to form an all-black combat unit, much to the War Department's chagrin. In response they set up a system to accept only those with flight experience or higher education that they expected to be hard to fill, a half-hearted effort to eliminate the unit before it could begin. This policy backfired, and soon the Air Corps was receiving applications from men who clearly met the grade.
In June 1941 the program was officially started with the formation of the 99th Fighter Squadron, formed up at the Tuskegee Institute, a famous school founded by Booker T. Washington in Tuskegee, Alabama. The unit included an entire service arm, not just pilots. After basic training they were moved to the nearby Tuskegee Army Air Field for conversion training onto operational types. They were put under the command of General Benjamin O. Davis Jr, a West Point graduate.
The 99th was ready for combat duty during the USA's first actions and was deployed to North Africa to operate against the Luftwaffe. For a time they were attached to the 33rd Fighter Group, whose commander left them out of most missions. Things changed when they were moved to Sicily and attached to the 79th Fighter Group, whose commander involved them fully. Here they quickly racked up an impressive combat record. Time after time they would enter combat against greater numbers of superior planes, and come out victorious. The Luftwaffe soon awarded them the name "Schwartze Vogelmenschen," or Black Birdmen, and started to avoid them when possible.
By this point more graduates were ready for combat, and the 322nd Fighter Group was created from three new squadrons, the 100th, 301st and 302nd. These were moved to mainland Italy, where they were eventually joined by the 99th. The 477th, a bomber group, was also forming in the US, but completed training too late to see action.
By the end of the war the 322nd had claimed over 400 Luftwaffe aircraft, a destroyer, and numerous fuel dumps, trucks and trains. Meanwhile they didn't lose a single bomber under escort to enemy action. The unit received recognition through official channels, and won two Presidential Unit Citations, 744 Air Medals, 150 Distinguished Flying Crosseses, fourteen Bronze Stars and several Silver Stars.
Far from failing as originally expected, a combination of pre-war experience and the personal drive of those accepted for training had resulted in some of the best pilots in the Air Corps. Nevertheless they continued to have to fight racism. Their combat record did much to quiet those directly involved with the group (notably bomber crews who often requested them for escort), but other units were less than interested and continued to harass them. In one event 100 of the men attempted to enter an officer's mess in the US and were refused, eventually receiving official reprimands for doing something that was illegal to deny them.
All of these events appear to have simply stiffened their resolve to fight for their own rights in the US. After the war the Tuskegee Airmen once again found themselves isolated, but a series of events over the next few years would end this. Perhaps the most important changes occurred when the 322nd entered the 1949 gunnery competition and won, while at the same time commanders across the US were looking for experienced pilots and crew. The result was the official end of segregation, ordered in 1948, and the Tuskegee Airmen found themselves in high demand throughout the newly formed United States Air Force.