World War II African-American Airmen Receive Congressional Medal

By Lauren Monsen
USINFO Staff Writer

Washington - The legendary Tuskegee Airmen, an elite corps of African-American military pilots who served with great distinction during World War II, were honored with the Congressional Gold Medal on March 29.

At a ceremony in the Capitol rotunda, aviators who once had to struggle for recognition from a segregated defense establishment finally received their due, in the form of the highest honor Congress can bestow on civilians.  Historians say the pilots’ achievements were instrumental in persuading President Harry S. Truman to desegregate the U.S. armed services in 1948.

From 1942 to 1946, nearly 1,000 black fighter and bomber pilots were trained at the segregated Tuskegee (Alabama) Army Air Field, and 450 served overseas.  “These airmen fought two wars - one against a military force overseas and the other against racism at home and abroad,” says the group’s Web site.

The Tuskegee Airmen flew more than 150,000 sorties over North Africa and Europe during World War II.  They escorted Allied bombers while also destroying more than 250 enemy aircraft in the air and another 150 on the ground.  Their bravery was well documented, and throughout their wartime service, they never lost a plane.

Although only 385 of the original 994 Tuskegee Airmen are still alive, many made the trip to Washington for the medal ceremony, where President Bush and former Secretary of State Colin Powell, a retired general, were among the featured speakers.

In his remarks, the president compared the feats of the now-elderly aviators to the patriotic service of historic figures whose statues line the Capitol rotunda.  “As I walked into the rotunda,“ said Bush, “I was impressed by the fact that I wasn’t among heroes who were statues.  I was impressed that I was amongst heroes who still live.”

The president saluted the pilots for selflessly serving their country at a time when they were subjected to countless indignities because of their race.  Despite their impressive service record, the Tuskegee Airmen were refused access to the all-white officers’ clubs of their day, and some were reprimanded officially for demanding admission to the clubs.  They also were denied opportunities for advancement that their white colleagues took for granted.

“Even the Nazis asked why African-American men would fight for a country that treated them unfairly,” said Bush.  “Yet the Tuskegee Airmen were eager to join up.”

Eventually, the exemplary service of the pilots and the black ground crews who supported them opened doors for other African Americans, in the military and elsewhere.  Bush paid tribute to the aviators’ sacrifice and applauded their determination to establish new standards of fairness in U.S. society.

“These men in our presence felt a special sense of urgency,” said Bush.  “They were fighting two wars: one was in Europe, and the other took place in the hearts and minds of our citizens.  …  And little by little, every victory at war was translated to a victory here in the United States.”

The pilots, now recognized as trailblazers whose efforts paved the way for the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, remained relatively obscure until Hollywood actor Laurence Fishburne starred in the 1995 film The Tuskegee Airmen.

One of the aviators, Bill Wheeler, 83, told Newsday: “There were guys who were anxious that they would pass away before this day came.  But I wasn’t among them.  I knew I would live to see this.”

Bush thanked the pilots for their dedicated service and acknowledged the debt their country owes them.

“The Tuskegee Airmen helped win a war, and you helped change our nation for the better,” he said.  “And the medal that we confer today means that we’re doing a small part to ensure that your story will be told and honored for generations to come.”

The Congressional Gold Medal awarded to the Tuskegee Airmen has been cast by the U.S. Mint, and will be on permanent display in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.  Replicas will be made for the aviators.

See also “Documentary on Tuskegee Airmen Teaches Hope, Patriotism.”

More information on the Tuskegee Airmen is available on a U.S. National Park Service Web site and on Tuskegee Airmen Inc.