The Tuskegee Airmen never lost to enemy fighters any bomber that they escorted during World War II. They take justifiable pride in that fact.
During the last year, however, they lost 50 members to age and illness. Although undefeatable by enemy fighters and 1940s prejudice, they decided at their 34th convention in mid-August that it would be their last such gathering. Fewer than 200 of the original 992 pilots remain alive. Those able to do so say they will join with another, younger group of black pilots at their future gatherings.
Among those at the Orlando reunion was retired Col. Lee Archer, 85, of Los Angeles. He flew 169 missions during World War II and was the only ace in the group. When he walked into the room, even other Tuskegee Airmen hushed.
Retired Col. Charles McGee, who will be 86 on Dec. 7, also was there. Now living at Bethesda, Md., McGee was a 19-year-old sophomore at the University of Illinois when he learned that the Army was recruiting black men interested in being Air Corps pilots. He flew 136 missions during World War II, and more in Korea and Vietnam as a career Air Force officer. In fact, he flew more combat missions than any other veteran of all three wars.
McGee and retired Col. Len Nevels both were quick to point out that, while the pilots are the best-known Tuskegee Airmen, thousands of others served in support roles as instructors, mechanics, nurses, truck drivers – the whole spectrum of men and women who make up any fighting force.
“For every pilot there were 10 people who served on the ground,” McGee said. “We couldn’t have achieved the success we did without them.”
In recent years, the Tuskegee Airmen have been honored by presidents and others in high office, but more important to them than honors, they insist, is the historic legacy they are leaving.
“There aren’t very many of us left,” commented retired Lt. Col. Charles Dryden, 87, of Atlanta. “That’s why we work so much with children. As we age, we want to be sure the children know the history.”
This year’s convention may be the Tuskegee Airmen’s last, but they have made sure that their honorable history will remain with us.
Ave atque vale.