History

Wendell Oliver Pruitt

Wendell Oliver Pruitt was an African American pilot and Tuskegee Airman during World War II. He was born on May 14, 1921, in St. Louis, Missouri. Pruitt grew up in St. Louis and developed an early interest in aviation. He joined the Civilian Pilot Training Program, which was part of the efforts to train African American pilots during a time of racial segregation in the military. In 1942, Pruitt enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps, where he trained as a fighter pilot.

As a member of the Tuskegee Airmen, an all-black aviation unit, Pruitt underwent rigorous training at Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama. He graduated as part of the Class of 44-C and earned his wings as a fighter pilot. Pruitt was assigned to the 332nd Fighter Group, which was known for its exceptional combat record and became renowned as the “Red Tails” due to the distinctive red paint on the tail sections of their aircraft. Pruitt flew combat missions over Europe during World War II, providing protection for bombers and engaging enemy aircraft in aerial combat.

Capt. Pruitt receives a watch as a gift from the “negroes of St. Louis” from Nathanial A. Sweets, editor, and publisher of the St. Louis American newspaper. At left is Mayor Aloys P. Kaufmann. Pruitt was modest during his brief remarks, calling the sinking of the destroyer “a lucky hit” and praising his comrades back in Italy as the real heroes. But he also said, “It sure is good to be home.” The visit was his first to St. Louis since he received his wings.

During his service, Pruitt flew the P-51 Mustang, a highly regarded fighter aircraft of the time. He completed 68 combat missions, earning the Distinguished Flying Cross for his exceptional skill and bravery in combat. After the war, Pruitt pursued a career as a commercial pilot, facing racial discrimination and challenges in finding employment. He eventually became a pilot for Ozark Air Lines, becoming the first African American pilot to be hired by a commercial passenger airline in the United States.

Pruitt’s groundbreaking achievements as a pilot and his contributions to the Tuskegee Airmen have been recognized and celebrated. He paved the way for future generations of African American pilots and played a significant role in challenging racial barriers in the aviation industry. Wendell Oliver Pruitt passed away on November 9, 1945, in Tuskegee, Alabama, tragically losing his life in an aircraft accident during a training flight. His legacy as a skilled pilot, a trailblazer for African Americans in aviation, and a member of the esteemed Tuskegee Airmen endures as an inspiration to this day.

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