Capt Leon C. “Derailer” Roberts
June 29, 1921- July 11, 1944
Class: 42-G-SE
Graduation Date: August 5, 1942
Unit: 332nd Fighter Group, 99th Fighter Squadron
Service # O-791539

Leon C. “Derailer” Roberts 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, Willie Ashley, Lee Rayford and Spann Watson.

Roberts was born on June 29, 1921, in Chickasaw, Alabama. He was the son of Benjamin Franklin Roberts and Nellie Coleman Roberts. He was also the twin brother of Cleon Bernard Roberts, who served as a flight instrument instructor for the airmen of the Tuskegee Army Air Corp, Tuskegee, Alabama. His other siblings included younger sister Frances Roberts Willis, brother Leslie Roberts, brother Eugene V. Roberts, sister Imogene Roberts Howard, and sister Olivia Cauthen.

Robert attended Mobile County Public Schools in Alabama, graduating from Mobile County Training School on January 27, 1944.

In 1942, Roberts enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps. On August 5, 1942, Roberts graduated from the Tuskegee Advanced Pilot Cadet program as a member of the fifth-ever Cadet Class Single Engine Section SE-42-G, receiving his wings and commission as a 2nd Lieutenant, service number assignment O-791539. Roberts was notable for being among the first thirty-four African American combat fighter pilots.

The U.S. Army Air Corps assigned Roberts to the 332nd Fighter Group’s 99th Fighter Squadron, becoming on April 12, 1944, its Operations Officer, succeeding then-Captain Lemuel R. Custis. Roberts flew 97 combat missions in the Mediterranean Theater, with 116 total missions overall.

Roberts became the first African American combat fighter pilot to engage in aerial combat, achieving this historic feat on June 9, 1943 with fellow 99th Fighter Squadron pilots Charles Dryden, Willie Ashley, Lee Rayford, Sidney P. Brooks and Spann Watson. His squadron nicknamed Roberts the “Derailer” for his astute ability to disrupt German flight patterns.

On January 27, 1944, Roberts was credited with one aerial kill, shooting down an enemy German FW-190 aircraft over Anzio, Italy. Though the enemy FW-190 had a moment to escape, its pilot elected to fight Roberts, who agilely maneuvered his slower yet superiorly armed Curtiss P-40L in for the kill.

Roberts is also credited with destroying a German Messerschmitt Bf 109 and German Fieseler Fi 156 Storch that were exchanging gunfire with American ground troops.

At the time of his death in 1944, Roberts held the rank of Captain.

Unit Assignments

  • 1941–1942, AAF MOS 770, Aviation Cadet Flight School, Tuskegee AAF, Tuskegee
  • 1942–1944, AAF MOS 1055, 99th Fighter Squadron, Ramitelli Airfield, Foggia
  • 1943–1943, AAF MOS 1055, 33rd Fighter Group, Qued N’ja, French Morocco; Fardjouna, Tunisia
  • 1943–1943, AAF MOS 1055, 324th Fighter Group, Fardjouna Airfield
  • 1943–1943, AAF MOS 1055, 33rd Fighter Group, Licata, Termini, & Barcellona Airfields, Sicily
  • 1943–1944, AAF MOS 1055, 79th Fighter Group, Salsola, Madna, & Capodichino Airfields
  • 1944–1944, AAF MOS 1055, 324th Fighter Group, Cercola & Pignataro Airfields[1]
  • 1944–1944, AAF MOS 1055, 332nd Fighter Group, Ramitelli Airfield, Foggia

Awards, Commendations

  • Air Medal
  • United States Aviator Badge Army
  • World War II Victory Medal
  • American Campaign Medal
  • Army Presidential Unit Citation
  • Army Good Conduct Medal
  • European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign

On July 11, 1944, Roberts was killed when his P-51C Mustang #42-103913 crashed during a P-51 transition training flight. Officials believed Robert’s faulty oxygen mask caused him to black out, lose control of his aircraft, and crash. He was only 23 years old and enroute to being transferred to Alabama. Roberts was interred at Oaklawn Cemetery, Section 5 Row 26, in Mobile, Alabama.

On July 24, 1994, the USS ALABAMA Battleship Memorial renamed its North American P-51D Mustang |4474216 – USAF for Roberts. His twin brother Cleon, mother Nellie Roberts, and sister Imogene Roberts Howard represented the family at the ceremony. Tuskegee Airman Herbert Carter served as the keynote speaker. Charles B. Hall was honored as well for being the first Tuskegee Airman to shoot down a German plane on June 21, 1943.



More Posts

Charles Roach

Charles Roach Class: 45-F-TE Graduation Date: 9/8/1945  Unit: 477th Bombardment Group, Service # T70431  “You can’t fight your way up to the top with your fists. You can with your character.” At the beginning of

Read More »

John L. Hamilton

John L. Hamilton December 13, 1919 – November 21, 1982 Class: 43-E-SE Graduation date: SE 5/28/1943 Rank at time of graduation: 2nd Lt. Service # 01576078 From: Greenwood, MS Very little has been documented about

Read More »

Richard S. Harder

Richard S. Harder August 14, 1922 – February 2, 2020 Class: 44-B-SE Graduation date: 2/8/1944 Rank at time of graduation: 2nd Lt. Unit: 99th Fighter Squadron, 332nd Fighter Group Service # 0821914 From: Brooklyn, NY

Read More »

Eleanor Thompson Wortz

Eleanor Thompson Wortz June 5, 1921 – DOD Class: 43-W-4 Training Location: Avenger Field (Sweetwater, Tex.) and Houston Municipal Airport (Tex.) Assigned Bases: Love Field (Dallas, Tex.) and Victorville Army Air Base (Calif.) Planes flown:

Read More »

Send Us A Message