As the war in Europe heated up, it was anticipated that eventually the United States would be involved in it in some way. In 1937, funds were allocated by Congress to rebuild Chanute Field in Rantoul, Illinois, and turn it into a top aviation technical school for the U.S. Army Air Corps. Recruits at Chanute would train to become parachute techs, airplane mechanics, radio operators, pilots, electricians, maintenance officers and ground crew members in a relatively short time.By the spring of 1941, Chanute Field was “home” to thousands of draftees and enlisted men. On March 22, the 99th Pursuit Squadron was activated at Chanute. The unit would consist of African-American men training to support America’s first black military pilots – who would not start their own training at Tuskegee until July.
A white officer, Captain Harold R. Maddux, was selected to command the 99th. In the picture below, he is on the far left. Continuing L to R: Dr. Fred L. Patterson, President of the Tuskegee Institute; Col. Raymond E. O’Neil, Chanute’s CO; George L. Washington, Director of the Aeronautics Division of the Tuskegee Institute and Brig. Gen. Rush L. Lincoln. The men are standing in front of Building T-39, the mess hall used by the 99th. The occasion was a visit of Tuskegee Institute officials to Chanute Field.
The men of the 99th were housed and ate separately from their white counterparts, but it soon became obvious that it would be more efficient for them to take their training as part of the general population. The Army brass didn't like this semi-integration, but turned a blind eye in the name of efficiency.
This is a recreation of a typical barracks set-up at Chanute c. 1941. The windows are from an original Chanute barracks.
Training was focused and intense. The men of the 99th left Chanute to go to Tuskegee in November. They left behind the highest collective Grade Point Average ever earned at the base, before or since their stay.
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The Chanute Air Museum has done a wonderful job honoring the men of the 99th as well as the entire population of the Tuskegee Airmen. They set aside a large room to tell the story of the 99th Pursuit (later "Fighter") Squadron and did it with flair.
A mural with a Mustang in action is the first thing you see.
There are large panels devoted to each experience of the men of the 99th – Chanute, Tuskegee, North Africa, Italy, and as post-war military and civilians. The museum has added effective little touches, like painting the background panel for “North Africa” to look like desert sand. There is also a round diorama about everyday life in North Africa that is extremely detailed.
An interesting 6-minute tape about the Tuskegee Airmen plays in a continuous loop with speakers hidden in “footlockers.” What I particularly liked was the ceiling, which is painted to look like bomber formations are flying overhead in a cloud-dotted sky; some are being pursued by the Germans. A model of a German plane is hung from the ceiling (center, nose down), chased by another model of a red-tailed Mustang.
One of the first large photos you see in the room is of the men of the 99th at Chanute, eager to learn and ready to fight for freedom.
That is counterbalanced by another large photo as you prepare to exit that touches on the cost of war to the men of the 99th, indeed to all the men of the segregated 332nd Fighter Group.
Next week: Part III - the rest of the museum
The Traveling Exhibit and Mustang are in Fort Wayne for an air show sponsored by the local Air National Guard unit that starts tonight.
Countdown to the election: 67 days
The CAF Red Tail Squadron is a volunteer-driven 501(c)3 non-profit organization that operates under the auspices of the Commemorative Air Force. For more information, please visit redtail.org.