A legacy receives wings

Published 12:00 am Thursday, April 27, 2006

The Selma Times-Journal

Congress’ highest civilian honor will be bestowed upon a group of men that changed the face of the American military.

On April 11, President George W. Bush signed into law a bill that will grant the Congressional Gold Medal to the 994 pilots trained at the Tuskegee Army Air Field from 1942 through 1946.

Rep. Charles B. Rangel authored the bill, and with the support of Senators Carl Levin and John McCain, the Tuskegee Airmen will receive recognition that is long overdue.

“This is the culmination of a huge effort by many people to grant the recognition to the Tuskegee Airmen that they have earned and so well deserve,” Rangel said.

“I especially want to thank Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan who carried this bill successfully in the Senate and worked with me every step of the way to get us to this day.”

The pilots were part of a group of about 10,000 soldiers that were also trained as navigators, bombardiers and gunnery crews at Tuskegee and other bases around the country.

Amidst a time when blacks in America were denied several rights granted to white citizens, the military was no exception.

Black soldiers were denied opportunities in aviation because it was thought their capacity in that aspect was far inferior.

One day after the NAACP filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of Howard University student Yancy Williams and others to force the Department of War to accept black pilot trainees, President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered the creation of an all-black training program.

The program began in July 1942, and from that eventually came the creation of the 332nd Fighter Group, which flew some 1,500 escort missions in Africa and Europe.

In all that time, the Red Tails (so nicknamed because the rears of their planes were painted a bright red color) never lost a single bomber to enemy fire.

They did so despite flying machines that were sometimes smaller and less powerful than those of Axis forces.

“Our success was based on whether or not we came back,” said retired Major Carrol S. Woods, now living in Montgomery. “Any war is a challenge, and we met the challenge. We did our job, and we did it to the best of our ability.”

Woods was one of 32 Tuskegee Airmen that was taken as a prisoner of war during World War II. A fighter pilot, he was shot down over Athens, Greece and spent seven months in a German war camp.

He was also a veteran of the Korean War, serving a total of 21 years in the military.

Retired Colonel Harry E. Ford Jr. was one of 550 black bomber pilots, but the war had ended just weeks before they were deployed overseas.

His concern is that the work of the Tuskegee Airmen is a chapter in history that is opened too seldom.

“I think some recognition on the national level is long overdue,” said Ford, who now lives in Maylene. “That’s one way to stir the pot and get teachers to talk to their students. They’re obviously going to ask some questions. Kids are going to ask who we are and what we did. I think it will stimulate teaching in the school systems.”

The date for the medal ceremony has not been specified but will be held later this year in Washington.

Both Ford and Woods said they were not sure if they would be able to attend, but would make efforts to do so.

President Bush will present the specially designed Gold Medal on behalf of Congress. Designed by the U.S. Mint, the award medal contains 15 ounces of gold and will be housed at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. It will be made available for temporary display at museums around the country.

Several prominent figures have previously received the award, including Thomas Edison, Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Coretta Scott King, Mother Teresa, Bob Hope and Jackie Robinson.

The Tuskegee Airmen’s achievements went beyond just the role of blacks in the military or in American society.

They helped to win the war, therefore changing the face of the country and the world.

“The success of the whole nation was dependent on it,” Woods said. “A lot of people that didn’t think we could do the job, we proved wrong. It had a lot to do with President (Harry) Truman integrating the military. Can you imagine if we had that ridiculous system going on now?”