June 20, 1920 – April 15, 1945
Class: 42-K-SE 12/13/1942 2nd Lt. 0794600 St. Louis, MO
Unit: 302nd Fighter Squadron of the 332nd Fighter Group
St. Louis, Missouri native Wendell Oliver Pruitt, a pioneering pilot of the 15th Air Force, was born to Elijah and Melanie Pruitt on June 20, 1920. Pruitt graduated from Sumner High School, briefly attended Stowe Teachers College (now Harris-Stowe State University), and later transferred to the historically black Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri. At the time, Lincoln University was one of the three Negro colleges that conducted civil pilot training and is the institution that laid the foundation for Pruitt’s short-lived career.
While a student at Lincoln, Pruitt obtained his private pilot license from Jefferson City Airport. He graduated from Lincoln in 1941 and was accepted into the U.S. Army Air Corps Flying School at Tuskegee, Alabama. Upon completion of pre-flight training and gunnery school as well as primary, basic, and advanced flying, Pruitt was commissioned second lieutenant in December 1942. He was assigned to the 302nd Fighter Squadron, which was designated as the 332nd Fighter Group.
The 332nd was transferred to the Mediterranean theater in late 1943 where Pruitt flew the P-47 Thunderbolt.
In June 1944, Pruitt and his occasional wingman, 1st Lt. Gwynne Walker Peirson, landed direct hits on an enemy destroyer that sank at Trieste harbor in northern Italy. He received the Distinguished Flying Cross for this action. Thereafter, the 332nd flew the P-51 Mustang as their primary fighter aircraft.
Pruitt teamed with Lee Archer to form the famed “Gruesome Twosome”, the most successful pair of Tuskegee pilots in terms of air victories in the 332nd Fighter Group.
During his brief years as a Tuskegee Airman, Pruitt flew 70 combat missions overseas. He is credited with permanently disabling a German destroyer, shooting down three enemy planes in the air, and destroying several others on the ground. His air victories earned him the rank of captain as well as several awards and honors, including the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal with six Oak Leaf Clusters. Because of his exploits, his hometown of St. Louis proclaimed December 12, 1944 as Captain Wendell O. Pruitt Day.
Before the war ended, Pruitt returned to the States to help train young pilots at Tuskegee. On the 20th of April, 1945 – ten days before Adolf Hitler shot himself, leading to the end of the war in Europe – a student pilot was practicing maneuvers with Pruitt aboard.
The plane crashed, near the Tuskegee field, killing both men. Investigators believed the cadet froze at a point where it was too late for Pruitt to resume control of the plane. Pruitt was not supposed to be at Tuskegee that day. He would have been on his way to Europe had President Roosevelt not died eight days before (on the 12th of April, 1945). The accident occurred just five months after celebrating his day of honor in his hometown.
Though Pruitt is not well remembered today, his legacy continued for decades after his death. In 1952 the city of St. Louis named the federally subsidized, high-rise Pruitt-Igoe Housing Project after him. Pruitt-Igoe was originally segregated with the Wendell O. Pruitt apartments reserved for African American residents, and the William L. Igoe apartments reserved for white residents. Endless problems, including crime, drugs and rodent infestations, led to the demolition of the Pruitt-Igoe complex beginning in 1972. In 1984, the Pruitt Military Academy was established in St. Louis. American Veteran posts in Michigan and Missouri honor Pruitt’s name today.
The CAF Red Tail Squadron is a volunteer-driven organization dedicated to educating audiences across the country about the history and legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen, America’s first black military pilots and their support personnel.