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Gen. Cannon, Col. Cochran and the Tuskegee Airmen

  • Published
  • By Steve Frank
  • 27th Special Operations Wing Historian

On July 2, 1943, 1st Lt. Charles Hall, 99th Fighter Squadron pilot, claimed the first of three air-to-air victories over Luftwaffe pilots.

Lt Hall's accomplishment is notable for being the first confirmed victory by an African American pilot while in American service.

The challenges and accomplishments of the 99th's pilots are well known, but what's not common knowledge is the role that General Keith Cannon, in 1943 the Deputy Commander of the North African Training Command, had in setting the 99th up for success and helping them overcome their lack of combat experience.

Due to the military's segregation policies, the pilots of the 99th, unlike others arriving in North Africa, were not allowed to be integrated into veteran squadrons and gain valuable experience and mentoring. To get around this, General Cannon tasked one of his star leaders and pilots, Maj. Phil Cochran, to take the 99th out into the desert and "teach them something."

Cochran was very impressed with the 99th pilots’ individual skills and stated that they were "trained to the hilt and only lacked experience" –which is exactly what he proceeded to provide them based on his previous six months in North Africa.

Cochran stated that the 99th "caught on quicker than the other squadrons" he taught, and "were exceptionally eager."

To Cochran's credit, the 99th's pilots were extremely appreciative of his efforts and after the war consistently remembered his professionalism, desire to treat them as equals and interest in providing them with the skills needed to survive and excel in combat.

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This Air Force pamphlet chronicles the challenges, struggles, and successes of all of the Tuskegee airmen during the Second World War. This oral history interview with Col. Cochran is packed with fascinating insight and leadership lessons.  Pages 118-127 specifically address his time training the 99th Fighter Squadron.