Capt Lee Rayford
April 1, 1918 – April 29, 1967
Class: Class 42-E-SE
Graduation Date: May 20, 1942
Unit: 332nd Fighter Group, 99th Fighter Squadron
Service # 0789437

Lee Rayford was a Commander of the 301st Squadron of the 332nd Fighter Group and fighter pilot within the 332nd Fighter Group’s 99th Fighter Squadron (best known as the all-African American Tuskegee Airmen, “Red Tails,” or among enemy German pilots, “Schwartze Vogelmenschen” (“Black Birdmen”)). He served as the Commander of Howard University’s Air Force ROTC Program.

Rayford was the first African American U.S. military pilot to engage in aerial combat against an enemy combatant, sharing this honor with 99th Fighter Squadron pilots Sidney P. Brooks, Charles Dryden (Tuskegee Airman), Willie Ashley, Leon Roberts and Spann Watson.

As a member of the famed Tuskegee Airmen or “Red Tails”, Rayford flew 90 combat missions, receiving the Distinguished Flying Cross as well as a Purple Heart for flak injuries he received June 4 1944 during the 332nd Fighter Group’s first mission conducting a fighter sweep of the Ferrara-Bologna area for the Fifteenth Air Force. During World War II, Rayford flew the P-40 Warhawk, P-47 Thunder Bolt and the famed P-51 Mustang from 1941-1945.

Rayford was born April 1, 1918 in Cheyney, Pennsylvania.  He attended Howard University in Washington, DC. and Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, graduating from Howard University with a bachelor degree in science.

Until his death in 1967, Rayford was married to Marion Washington Rayford (August 10, 1918 – August 9, 2004).

In 1941, Rayford applied and was admitted to the US Army Air Corp’s Flight Training Program at the Tuskegee Army Flying School in Tuskegee, Alabama. After graduating in the School’s 3rd Class – Class 42E on May 20, 1942, Rayford received his wings and commission as a 2nd Lieutenant in May 1942 with the serial number 0789437.

During World War II, he served with the 332nd Fighter Group’s 99th Fighter Squadron, and later became the Commander of the 332nd Fighter Group’s 301st Squadron. Rayford flew 90 combat missions, receiving the Distinguished Flying Cross and Purple Heart for flak shrapnel injuries he received June 4 1944: during the 332nd Fighter Group’s first mission with the Fifteenth Air Force conducting a fighter sweep of the Ferrara-Bologna area.

In April 1943, Rayford flew his first non-combat mission with the 99th Fighter Squadron in North Africa in April. On June 2, 1943, he flew his first combat mission against the island of Pantelleria on June 2, 1943. On June 9, 1943, Rayford and several other 99th fighter pilots engaged enemy German fighter aircraft after fellow pilot, Lt Charles Dryden was attacked.

On June 18, 1943, Rayford’s P-40 aircraft was hit multiple times as his 99th Fighter Squadron encountered enemy aircraft.

On December 4, 1943, Lee Rayford was reassigned from the 99th Fighter Squadron to the 301st Fighter Squadron of the 332nd Fighter Group.

On February 28, 1944, Rayford, now a Captain, assumed command of the 332nd Fighter Group’s 301st Fighter Squadron, replacing Capt. Charles H. DeBow, one of the first five African American Army pilots who was relieved of command because of physical disabilities.

On July 18, 1944, Lee Rayford led 66 Mustangs from all four squadrons of the 332nd Fighter Group to the briefed rendezvous point over southern Germany, but the bombers of the 5th Bomb Wing, scheduled to strike the Luftwaffe base at Memmingen in Austria, were nowhere to be found. Rayford decided to orbit the Undine-Treviso area, which was already known to be a hotbed of Luftwaffe fighter activity, and as the bombers finally approached, the Mustang pilots spotted a swarm of 30 to 35 Bf 109s to the right of the formation. The enemy fighters attacked in groups from three o’clock high and five o’clock low, then split-S’ed away. Twenty-one of the Mustangs rushed to break up the attack, destroying 11 of the German fighters.

Once this threat had been dealt with, the formation continued to Austria, but over the target 30 to 40 enemy aircraft – mainly Bf 109s, Fw 190s and Me 410s – were sighted. Eventually, four Fw 190s swooped in to attack, and two were shot down.

The tally for the day was impressive, with Clarence “Lucky” Lester bagging three, Jack Holsclaw two and Lee Archer, Charles Bailey, Walter Palmer, Roger Romine, Ed Toppins and Hugh Warner one apiece.

Palmer’s victim was a Bf 109, which he hit with several short bursts after it made a pass at the bombers. “On the second of third burst I noticed his engine smoking badly, so I broke it off because there were others to shoot down,” Palmer later wrote. He closed in on a second Bf 109 but is guns jammed. Her considered chopping off the enemy fighter’s tail with his propeller, but the Bf 109 headed into a cloud bank shrouding the tops of the Alps, convincing Palmer to break off the pursuit.

Toppins destroyed his opponent by diving at him at a speed so high that when he pulled out, he warped the fuselage of his fighter – the Mustang had to be scrapped after the mission. Two more P-51s were lost in the fray, with Lt. Gene Browne surviving to be taken prisoner and Lt. Wellington Irving being killed. Oscar Hutton was also lost when his Mustang was hit by a drop tank jettisoned by another P-51

Rayford was one of six 332nd Fighter Group pilots to have earned the Distinguished Flying Cross for an August 12, 1944 strafing attack mission of radar stations in southern France, all in preparation for the Allied’s August 15, 1944 invasion of southern France. Brigadier General Dean C. Strother, commander of the XV Fighter Command, awarded Distinguished Flying Crosses to Rayford on January 1, 1945.

In January 1945, Rayford returned to the United States. Armour G. McDaniel replaced Rayford as Commander of the 301st Fighter Squadron.

After returning to the United States, Rayford was promoted to Major and became the Commander of Howard University’s Air Force ROTC Program where he taught military science, tactics and Air Force administration. He was eventually promoted to Lt Colonel, serving in the Air Force Reserves until his retirement.

Rayford died April 29, 1967 at the age of 49. He is interred at the Alexandria National Cemetery (Alexandria, Virginia) in Plot B, 5127.

Major Lee Rayford in front of a P-47 Thunderbolt while with the 301st FS in Italy during WWII. Rayford first flew combat with the 99th FS and after his first combat tour was completed returned to the States. He then deployed back to Italy for a second tour serving as CO of the 301st FS. Lee flew combat missions in the P-40, P-47 and P-51. Photo: Robert Scurlock. Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.

American Air Museum


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