The Tuskegee Airmen was an elite group of African American pilots in the 1940s. They were pioneers in equality and integration of the Armed Forces. The term “Tuskegee Airmen” refers to all who were involved in the Army Air Corps program to train African Americans to fly and maintain combat aircraft and included pilots, navigators, bombardiers, maintenance and support staff, instructors and all the personnel who kept the planes in the air.
The young men pictured were the most recent class of twin-engine pilots to receive their commissions and the coveted “silver wings” from the Tuskegee Army Air Field. Receiving silver wings meant they would be Army Air Force pilots. These men completed the standard Army flight classroom instruction and many hours of flight time. Receiving their silver wings marked a milestone in being the first African Americans to qualify as military pilots in any branch of the armed forces. They are standing in front of a B-25, the ship they would pilot with the 447th Bombardment Group. This youthful group of airmen graduated from the Tuskegee Field on April 16th, 1945.
By the end of the war, 992 men had graduated from Negro Air Corps pilot training at Tuskegee; 450 were sent overseas for combat assignment. During the same period, about 150 lost their lives while in training or on combat flights. These black Airmen managed to destroy or damage over 409 German airplanes, 950 ground units and sank a battleship destroyer. They ran more than 200 bomber escort missions during World War II. The men earned the nickname “Red Tail Angels” since the bombers they protected considered their escorts “angels” and because of the red paint on the propeller and tail of the planes.
Russell F. Desvignes was born about 1919 in New Orleans, Louisiana. As a boy growing up in 1930 he lived at 1359 Columbus Street in the ethnically diverse seventh ward. His family consisted of his father, Eugene Desvignes, who was a plasterer in the building trade, and his mother Adala/Adelaide and siblings Eugene, Jr., Donald, Rodney and little sister Marian. By 1940, before he went to train at Tuskegee, Russell was still living with his family in the seventh ward of New Orleans at 1657 N. Robertson Street. His father was still working as a plasterer at a plastering company and everyone was still in the home except Eugene, Jr.
Russell came from a proud history of highly sought after tradesmen…plasterers. His father Eugene Albert Desvignes– a tall, slender man– was born in Louisiana on November 15, 1891 and at an early age had trained and began working as a plasterer. On June 10, 1916 Eugene married Adalice Snaer. By 1917 he was employed as a plasterer by the Jefferson Concrete Company at Audubon Park and he continued to work in this profession for decades.
Russell Desvignes had a strong role model in his father Eugene and it is no wonder he strove to accomplish something that embodied difficulty, strife, grace and artistry…becoming a pilot during World War II at a time when not much was expected of young men like him.
Sources: Louisiana Weekly, 28 April, 1945; Official web site of the U.S. Air Force www.af.mil; 1930 & 1940 U.S. Census; New Orleans, Louisiana, City Directory, 1917;New Orleans, Louisiana Marriage Records Index, 1831 – 1920; US World War I Draft Registration Cards, 1917 – 1918.