How the Tuskegee Airmen Ended Up at Columbus’ Lockbourne Air Base After World War II
In his new history column, “Lost Columbus,” writer Jeff Darbee explores the story of the famed Black military unit’s arrival in Central Ohio.
The Tuskegee Airmen, the roughly 1,000 Black Americans in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II, trained in both fighter planes and medium bombers. Their increasingly effective aircraft were the P-39 Airacobra, the P-40 Warhawk, the P-47 Thunderbolt and, finally, the P-51 Mustang. Dubbed the Red Tails for how their planes were painted, the Tuskegee pilots completed their first mission in the Mustang on July 11, 1944. The next day, the late Harold Sawyer of Columbus scored the first P-51 victory, downing two enemy fighters.
At war’s end, the airmen were still in a segregated military. In 1945, rather than build Jim Crow facilities at bases all across the country, the Air Corps (the U.S. Air Force after 1947) decided instead to assign the Tuskegee Airmen to a single base. Evaluating northern cities with existing facilities, good race relations and plentiful housing, the Army chose Columbus over the other finalist, Hartford, Connecticut. However, the news in 1946 that the Tuskegee Airmen were coming to what then was Lockbourne Army Air Base was not universally welcomed. Some airmen were widely criticized for their earlier involvement in a conflict at Freeman Field in Indiana when they tried to enter the white-only officers’ club.
When the move to Lockbourne was announced, some in Columbus did not want this “trouble-making outfit” to settle here. In an editorial that was shocking even in those days, the editor of the Columbus Citizen wrote, “We should not send our servants to war to fight for us because we cannot take the results—such as worshipping them as heroes.” Still, under the airmen’s wartime commander, Benjamin O. Davis Jr., both the airmen and the substantial white civilian workforce performed their duties peacefully at Lockbourne. Historians credit the Tuskegee experience in Columbus with encouraging President Truman to issue Executive Order 9981 on July 26, 1948. The order ended segregation in the U.S. military, with the Air Force the first of the military services to integrate. As a result, the Tuskegee Airmen left Columbus for other bases the following summer.
Jeff Darbee is a preservationist, historian and author in Columbus.
Sources: Columbus Citizen; The Ohio State News; “The Tuskegee Airmen, an Illustrated History 1939–1949”; “Red Tails, An Oral History of the Tuskegee Airmen”; “The Air Force Integrates, 1945–1964”
This story is from the September 2022 issue of Columbus Monthly.