Flying his P-51C “Kitten,” Lt Charles McGee and Mustangs of the 332nd Fighter Group escort B-24s of the 459th Bomb Group, beginning the journey back to their base in Italy after a daylight bombing mission, summer 1944. Known as the “Red Tails,” these all-black pilots gained a reputation for their unequaled record of safely protecting their bombers, often being specifically requested for this duty by the bomber crews themselves.
Training at Tuskegee in Alabama and made up almost entirely of African-Americans, the young pilots of what was to become famously known as the Tuskegee Airmen first went into action in Italy in May 1943 as the 99th Pursuit Squadron.
Contending with prejudice from certain quarters within the air force and much of the press, the 99th was equipped with second-hand P-40 Warhawks and later P-47 Thunderbolts flying fighter-bomber missions against railroads, bridges and communication centers. However in July 1944, the unit joined the 100th, 301st and 302nd Fighter Squadrons to form the 332nd Fighter Group at Ramitelli Airfield. Now equipped with P-51 Mustangs with bright red spinners and tails, they became lastingly known as the “Red Tails.”
Under the strict leadership of Colonel Benjamin O. Davis, who insisted his men stay close to the bombers they were escorting, rather than pursuing enemy fighters, their dedicated task was to protect the bomber forces……and they excelled! Flying until the end of hostilities over Southern Europe and eventually as far as Berlin, their record for protecting their bombers was second to none, and that iron discipline would earn the ‘Tuskegee Airmen’ the respect of hundreds of bomber crews.
One of the many units regularly escorted by the Red Tails was the 459th Bomb Group, 15th Air Force. The Group began flying missions out of Giulia Airfield in Italy from March 1944 over most of Europe, including France, Yugoslavia, Hungary, Germany and Greece. Flying almost 200 combat missions, the 459th successfully attacked numerous targets including oil refineries, railroads, heavy industry, communication lines and bridges. The unit was awarded the Distinguished Unit Citation for its daring raid against airfields in Bad Voslau on April 23rd, 1944, hitting the target despite a barrage of flak and enemy fighters.
The Tuskegee airmen have achieved iconic status since WWII and Benjamin O. Davis would go on to become the first African-American general officer in the U.S. Air Force, eventually rising to the rank of Four Star General. The four squadrons of the 332nd completed over 15,000 combat sorties in over 1,800 missions, destroyed over 250 Luftwaffe aircraft in the air and on the ground (including three German Jets in one day), 950 railway trucks and locomotives, and even a destroyer by machine gun fire! The Group was awarded three Distinguished Unit Citations and their pilots decorated with almost 900 medals, including a Silver Star and 96 DFCs.
This powerful new piece by one of the world’s most accomplished and widely collected Aviation Artists, John Shaw, is released as a lasting tribute to the Tuskegee Airmen and the brave bomber crews who endured those grueling missions in the skies over occupied Europe during WWII.
This print was individually numbered and personally signed by the artist along with two highly distinguished veterans who were involved in the scene depicted in John Shaw’s painting:
Brigadier General CHARLES McGEE (P-51 Mustang “Kitten”)
After graduating flight school he joined the 302nd Fighter Squadron, 332nd Fighter Group in Italy in December 1943 initially flying the P-39 Airacobra and P-47 Thunderbolt. Transferring to the P-51 he flew his Mustang ‘Kitten’ on missions in North Africa, Italy and Germany, scoring his first victory whilst escorting bombers on the Ploesti raid of 24 August, and finishing the war with three in total. After the war he commanded fighter units throughout the United States, Italy, the Philippines and Germany, and flew in combat in Korea and Vietnam, logging more than 6,100 hours and 409 combat missions. Serving in the Air Force for 30 years, he holds the record of flying more combat missions than any other USAF pilot in history and is the only known fighter pilot to fly 100 or more combat missions in WWII, Korea and Vietnam. His many awards for service and valor include the Legion of Merit, DFC with two clusters, Bronze Star and Légion d’honneur. In 2011, he was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame.
Staff Sergeant CORLISS NORTON (B-24 “Cherokee Maiden”)
Joining the Army Air Corp in June 1942 he trained as an Air Gunner and was assigned to the 756th Squadron, 459th Bomb Group, as the tail gunner on B-24’s, flying from Creganola, Italy. On his 3rd mission whilst attacking the Ploesti Oil Fields, his aircraft was hit by flak and forced to ditch in the Adriatic Sea. Four of the nine crew were lost and Corliss was the only survivor of the five crewmen in the rear. Rescued by a PBY, he and the surviving crew members returned to combat missions after recovering from their injuries. Now flying on the B-24 ‘Cherokee Maiden’ he completed 39 combat missions participating in some of the most dangerous operations of the war, including a return mission to Ploesti plus multiple trips to Budapest, Vienna, and Blechhammer. On returning to the US, he became a B-29 gunnery trainer in preparation for the invasion of Japan. He was honorably discharged in October of 1945 and his many citations include the Purple Heart and Air Medal with 3 oak clusters.
John Shaw has elected to honor the legacy of Charles McGee by hand-drawing his famed P-51 Mustang as well as the Phantom he flew later in his career.