War on Terrorism

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Tuskegee Airmen Observe 65th Anniversary

By Donna Miles

WASHINGTON, July 19, 2006 – Sixty-five years after the Defense Department launched a program to train the first black military pilots and aircrews, veterans of the Tuskegee Airmen say they're proud of the barriers they helped break down and the example they set for today's servicemembers. DoD, then called the Department of War, established the revolutionary Tuskegee Airmen program on July 19, 1941, when the first members began training at Alabama's Tuskegee Institute and nearby Tuskegee Army Airfield. Eighty-five-year-old retired Air Force Master Sgt. Ezra Hill Sr. recalls that nobody believed the black airmen would succeed. "Everybody thought we would fail," he said from his home in Hampton, Va. "They thought we lacked the skills we needed and that we were cowards."

But Roger Terry, a former Tuskegee Airmen who went on to serve as president of the Tuskegee Airmen Inc., said he never questioned his or his fellow black airmen's abilities. "I had no doubt in my mind that I could fly," said Terry, 85, who lives in Englewood, Calif. Terry, Hill and their fellow Tuskegee Airmen proved the naysayers wrong on all counts, serving with distinction, earning respect of friendly and enemy forces alike and ultimately, helping pave the way for integration of the U.S. military.

The first classes of Tuskegee Airmen were trained as fighter pilots for the 99th Fighter Squadron, destined for combat duty in North Africa. Their mission was to escort bomber aircraft over strategic targets to help reduce the heavy losses these crews were experiencing. Additional pilots were assigned to the 332nd Fighter Group, which also included the 100th, 301st and 302nd Fighter Squadrons.

By the war's end, almost 1,000 men had graduated from pilot training at Tuskegee, and almost half of them went on to combat assignments overseas. During the course of the war, the Tuskegee Airmen flew more than 15,000 sorties and fought in the skies over North Africa, Sicily and Europe, in P-40 Tomahawks, then P-39 Air Cobras, then P-47 Thunderbolts, then finally, P-51 aircraft.

As they amassed more than 200 combat missions, the Tuskegee Airmen distinguished themselves by never losing a single bomber to enemy--a record unmatched by any other fighter group. Hill credits Col. Benjamin O. Davis Jr., among the first Tuskegee Airmen to earn his wings. "He told us that if we failed and lost a bomber because of negligence, that he didn't want us back," Hill said. "He put a lot of pressure on us, but in doing that, he made us succeed."

The long list of military awards earned by the Tuskegee Airmen stands as a testament to that success. Collectively, they earned more than 744 Air Medals, more than 100 Flying Crosses, 14 Bronze Star Medals, eight Purple Hearts, a Silver Star, Legion of Merit and three Presidential Unit Citations.

In May 2006, President Bush signed a bill into law awarding the Tuskegee Airmen the Congressional Gold Medal, Congress' highest civilian award. Tentative plans call for the group to receive the award Nov. 11 during a Veterans Day ceremony. The road to that success wasn't always smooth for the Tuskegee Airmen, who battled segregation and prejudice on the ground as they confronted enemy forces in the air. For example, Terry was convicted by court-martialof assaulting a white officer while trying to integrate the all-white officers club at Freeman Field, Ind., in 1945. His conviction was overturned 50 years later.

But ultimately, the Tuskegee Airmen broke down racial barriers in a way never envisioned during their establishment. Davis, one of the first to earn his silver wings through the program, went on to become the first African-American Air Force general. Another Tuskegee Airman, Daniel "Chappie" James, became the United States' first four-star general.

As the Tuskegee Airmen distinguished themselves both individually and as a group, they helped pave the way for President Harry S. Truman's 1948 executive order integrating the armed forces. "What the Tuskegee airmen did was start a new level of understanding," Hill said. "They are the ones that changed the nation."

Last year, seven Tuskegee airmen flew to Balad, Iraq, to speak with active-duty airmen serving in the 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing, the current iteration of their former unit. During the visit, former Tuskegee Airman Col. Dick Toliver offered encouragement to airmen fighting the global war on terror. "Don't be afraid to get out of your comfort zone and fight for what's right," he told them. "You are the Tuskegee Airmen of the 21st century." Hill said the Tuskegee Airmen's experience still has meaning today to today's military members. "Don't let anyone tell you what you can't do," he said. "We proved that you can do it."

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