These Black Fighter Pilots mattered

Master Sargent James A. Cotten,
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The death of another of the Tuskegee Airmen refreshes their history as fighter pilots in World War II. Many may know of their aerial successes, but not as well known was segregationist actions which sought to exclude these elite pilots from battle. An obituary is followed by a recounting of racism as exhibited in 1943.

James Cotten, New Jerseyan who served with Tuskegee Airmen, dies at 93



Willingboro veteran spent 21 years in the Air Force, 45 more as a civilian employee at Joint Base McGuire-Dix

By David Wildstein, August 22 2020 3:43 pm

James A. Cotten, a member of the fabled Tuskegee Airmen, 332nd Fighter Group, died on August 14.  He was 93.

red tails patches and plane_

red tails patches and plane_

Cotten spent 21 years in the U.S. Air Force before beginning a 45-year career as a contract administrator for the U.S. Department of Defense at Joint Base McGuire-Dix.  He retired in 2012 at age 85.

We were really doing something in the interest of the nation, Cotton said in 2017 interview “We were considered to be elite personnel. We were taught every day that this was another day to excel.”

congressional gold medal

In 2012, Cotten was presented the Congressional Gold Medal for his service with the Tuskegee Airmen.  The following year, he was one of six veterans present when President Barack Obama paid tribute to the famed unit.

Cotten joined the elite, all Black Air Force unit in 1945, after he turned 18.  In 1949, he was assigned to the 334th Fighter Interceptor Squadron 4th Fighter Group as the Air Operations non-commissioned officer.

He spent more than 20 years on the Board of Directors of the New Jersey Credit Union League Board of Directors and served on the Veteran’s Advisory Committee. Cotten was a Willingboro resident.

Cotten is survived by his wife of 73 years, Oteria, 10 children, 15 grandchildren, 21 great-grandchildren, and 2 great-great-grandchildren.

VIDEO of Cotten


american war museum

The story of segregation

 tuskegee airmen class

332nd Fighter Group


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.

Tuskegee Army Air Field, Alabama P-39 Airacobra

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.

 Benjamin DavisThe 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 included student officer Captain Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., who served as Commandant of Cadets, began training on 19 July 1941.

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

Col. Momyer

Col. Momyer

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.

distinguished unit citation In the meantime,[1] 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.

combat images[2]

…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.[3]
The Tuskegee Airmen initially were equipped with Curtiss P-40s, briefly with Bell P-39 Airacobras (March 1944), later with Republic P-47 Thunderbolts (June–July 1944), and finally with the aircraft with which they became most commonly identified, the North American P-51 Mustang (July 1944).

The record of this unit is exemplary and long. Here is a summary of their accomplishments in battle:

more battle scenes

In all, 992 pilots were trained in Tuskegee from 1941–1946. 355 were deployed overseas, and 84 lost their lives. The toll included 68 pilots killed in action or accidents, 12 killed in training and non-combat missions and 32 captured as prisoners of war.

The Tuskegee Airmen were credited by higher commands with the following accomplishments:

1578 combat missions, 1267 for the Twelfth Air Force; 311 for the Fifteenth Air Force

179 bomber escort missionswith a good record of protection, losing bombers on only seven missions and a total of only 27, compared to an average of 46 among other 15th Air Force P-51 groups

112 enemy aircraft destroyed in the air, another 150 on the ground and 148 damaged. This Me_262_fincluded three Me-262 jet fighters shot down


950 rail cars, trucks and other motor vehicles destroyed (over 600 rail cars)

One torpedo boat put out of action. The ship concerned was a World War I-vintage destroyer (Giuseppe Missori) of the Italian Navy…

40 boats and barges destroyed

Awards and decorations included:

Three Distinguished Unit Citations

99th Pursuit Squadron: 30 May–11 June 1943 for actions over Sicily

99th Fighter Squadron: 12–14 May 1944: for successful air strikes against Monte Cassino, Italy

332nd Fighter Group (and its 99th, 100th, and 301st Fighter Squadrons): 24 March 1945: for a bomber escort mission to Berlin, during which pilots of the 100th FS shot down three enemy Me 262 jets. The 302nd Fighter Squadron did not receive this award as it had been disbanded on 6 March 1945.

At least one Silver Star

96 Distinguished Flying Crosses to 95 Airmen; Captain William A. Campbell was awarded two.

14 Bronze Stars

744 Air Medals

pictures of Tuskegee Airman


Courageous pilots whose battle to be allowed to fight set a precedent comparable to Jackie Robinson.


[1] Eventually, the 99th earned three Distinguished Unit Citations.

[2] Several of the pictures included are contemporary images, particularly the battle scenes.


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2 Comments on "These Black Fighter Pilots mattered"

  1. RE: These Black Fighter Pilots mattered.

    Without challenging for a moment the great accomplishments of the Tuskegee Airmen, the untold story is really about the ground crews. 20 years ago I was fortunate enough to host a reception for the Tuskegee Airmen maintenance techs. Their stories were amazing. Many of them answered the call to be pilots, when the pilot quota was filled, they simply rolled their application to open ground positions. They were from all walks of life: Doctors, Lawyers, and yes, mechanics. A truly amazing story.

  2. Sandy Murdock | August 31, 2020 at 5:45 pm | Reply

    Ric Peri–THANKS for the added background. At least there is a picture of a mechanic working.

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