It was a warm January afternoon, when more than 1,000 people gathered at the CAF Arizona Wing Aviation Museum at Falcon Field in Mesa. They were there to pay tribute to 13 (eight still survive) Tuskegee Airmen with Arizona ties. Among those paying homage to the airmen who produced an “unprecedented” record of performance in World War II was Col. Dick Toliver, USAF, Ret.
His address was lengthy, but it is important to note the passages that resonated with the crowd in that huge airplane hangar.
Toliver began with a greeting to crowd, then said, “It is an esteemed honor to share with you a brief history regarding the legacy of Tuskegee Airmen, a group of America’s greatest patriots.
“The history and legacy of the Tuskegee Airman are anchored in their unprecedented record of performance during WW II. The following are just a few of their accomplishments:
– From 1942 through 1946, approximately 996 pilots graduated and received their commission and pilot wings at Tuskegee, Ala.
– Navigators, bombardiers, gunnery crews, and mechanics were trained at other selected military bases until Tuskegee Army Air Field opened in Alabama.
– More than 15,000 men and women were part of the “Tuskegee Experience” and all were called the “Tuskegee Airmen.”
– Four hundred fifty pilots flew combat overseas in the 99th Pursuit Squadron and 332nd Fighter Group. They flew over 15,000 sorties, destroyed or damaged over 400 enemy aircraft, destroyed over 1,000 other military targets, and even sunk an enemy naval destroyer with aircraft machine gun fire.
– While stationed in Italy, the famous legend of the “Red Tails” was born when the tails of P-51s flown by the Tuskegee Airmen were painted the distinctive red color for unit recognition. To the escorted US bombers, the Tuskegee became known as the “Red Tail Angels” because of their commitment to their safe passage.” But the Germans called them the “Red Tail Devils” because of their fearless prowess.
– Sixty-six Tuskegee Airmen lost their lives in combat, and 32 spent time as prisoners of war.
– The outstanding combat record of the Tuskegee Airmen is unequalled by any other flying unit of WW II. Their awards included a Legion of Merit, one Silver Star, 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses, 744 Air Medals, 14 Bronze Stars, and eight Purple Hearts.
– The 477TH Bombardment Group also had a significant part in the Tuskegee Airmen legacy. This unit was the first Black group to train in multi-engine bombers, initially at Selfridge Field, near Detroit, Mich. The racial strife at Selfridge resulted in the first documented protest demonstration by Black officers against severe racial prejudice in the Army Air Corps. As a result, the 477th was first transferred to Godman Field, Ky., then to Freeman Field, Ind. Racial oppression continued, but here the Tuskegee Airmen stood their ground and over 100 were arrested in what was called the “first non-violent civil rights demonstration.” Their bold and courageous actions forced the Army Air Corps to deal with their demand for fair and equal treatment as officers.
– WW II ended before the 477th was deployed for combat, but they played a significant role in bringing about racial equality in the US Army Air Corps. Clearly, the success of Tuskegee Airmen proved to the American public that African-Americans, when given an opportunity, could become effective military leaders, pilots, and significant contributors to the nation’s defense. Their story reflects the struggle of African Americans in achieving equal rights that helped set the pattern for nonviolent direct action in the 1950s and 1960s.
Thus, the Tuskegee Experience provided a significant benchmark in the annals of American History.
Despite the outstanding performance of the Tuskegee Airmen, they returned home in 1945 to find the ugly and persistent barriers to racial equality. However, now armed with a renewed sense of determination, pride, and resolve, the Tuskegee Airmen girded up their belts and prepared to continue the war against racism and inequality.
Many continued this struggle in the military. Others prepared themselves through education at every level – colleges and universities, technical and trade schools, and other institutions of learning. Throughout America, these patriots immersed themselves in making their communities, towns, and cities a better place in which to live. They continued their struggles as businessmen, doctors and lawyers, educators, farmers, and a host of other endeavors.
Coleman Young, an original Airman, eventually served as Mayor of Detroit for 20 years. Others held key roles in government at the city, state, and national level.
Eventually, they forged ahead and opened the doors to aviation as pilots, administrators, aircraft controllers, and other related jobs.
Numerous key milestones can be attributed directly to the legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen:
– 1948: Desegregation of the Armed Services. As a result of the performance of the Tuskegee Airmen and other African American units in WW II, President Harry Truman issued Executive Order 9981, an act to desegregate the armed services. Against the advice of senior civilian and military leaders, President Truman insisted that “the highest standards of democracy were essential in the armed services and that there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons, without regard to race, color, religion or national origin.”
– 1949: Capt. Alva Temple, 1/Lts. Harry Stewart, James Harvey, III and Halbert Alexander took first place in the first Top-Gun competition in the Air Force at Nellis AFB, Nev. The trophy for this most notable achievement was “lost” for nearly 50 years. I am proud to say the trophy has been “found” and proudly resides with the Tuskegee Airmen exhibit at the Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio.
– 1950 – 1953: Many of the original Tuskegee Airmen were joined by the next generation of Airmen and fought in the Korean Conflict, thus continuing the proud and illustrious standard of excellence.
-1954: Colonel B.O. Davis Jr. became the first African-American in the Air Force to be promoted to Brig. Gen. Oct. 27.
— Promoted to Major Gen., June 30, 1959
— Promoted to Lt. Gen., April 30, 1965
– 1965 – 1975: Many of the original Tuskegee Airmen served in their third war. Their continued trailblazing opened the doors for others to follow. African-American men and women emerged as aviators, astronauts, flag officers, and senior leaders in the military services and Department of Defense.
– 1972: Tuskegee Airmen Inc. or TAI was established to ensure the perpetuity of the legacy of these great patriots. Today, over 50 chapters nationwide have a two-fold purpose:
— To honor the accomplishments of those who trained and performed as Tuskegee Airmen during World War II.
— To introduce young people to the world of aviation and science through TAI Youth Programs.
The organization also provides scholarships to high school students and cadets in the USAF ROTC program.
In addition to TAI, today, seven other organizations have been inspired and organized for similar purposes. These organizations have provided thousands of underexposed youths an opportunity to experience aviation up close and personal. Many of these youngsters have gone on to college and became military aviators after graduation.
– 1975-2000: Thanks to the trails blazed by the Tuskegee Airmen, many African-Americans achieved numerous “firsts” across a spectrum of endeavors:
— In 1975, Capt. Lloyd W. “Fig” Newton was the first African-American selected for the USAF Aerial Demonstration Team, the Thunderbirds He later retired as a four-star general.
— In 1975, Lt. Gen. Daniel “Chappie” James, Jr., an original Tuskegee Airman, became the first African-American to be promoted to a four-star General in the U. S. Air Force.
— In 1983, Col. Guion “Guy” Bluford Jr. became the first African-American astronaut and flew on Challenger Mission STS-8 (Col. Bluford and I served our first combat tours at Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam in 1966).
— In 1989, Gen. Colin Powell became the first African-American Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and went on to be selected as the first African-American Secretary of State in 1989.
— In 1992, Dr. Mae Jemison became the first African-American female astronaut and flew on Space Shuttle Endeavour.
— Finally in 1998, Lt. Gen. Benjamin O. Davis Jr. was advanced to the grade of a four-star general. President Clinton corrected this gross miscarriage of justice 28-1/2 years after Gen. Davis retired.
Continuing on in the 21st century
We entered the 21st century on a very sad note: July 4, 2002, Gen. B. O. Davis, Jr, the first commander of the Tuskegee Airmen, died in Washinton, DC. A host of dignitaries and mourners paid their respect as he was laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery July 17.
Another historic day of recognition took place March 29, 2007. President George W. Bush presented the Congressional Gold Medal to approximately 300 Tuskegee Airmen or their widows at the U.S. Capitol rotunda in Washington, D.C. Although long overdue, this award was greatly appreciated by the Tuskegee Airmen, their families, and all who believe in equality, freedom, and justice for all of America’s patriots.
Finally, on a cold, wintry day in Janurary 2009, approximately 180 Tuskegee Airmen responded to the personal invitation of President Barack Obama to attend his inauguration.
Ladies and gentlemen, these are just a few of the many accomplishments of the great trailblazers and role models, the Tuskegee Airmen. Today, let us give a resounding thanks and say, “Well done” to the Tuskegee Airmen, their families and to those who have passed on. God truly has blessed America through the work and sacrifices of these great patriots.