Sixty years after earning fame for their feats in World War II, Congress has bestowed its Gold Medal on the surviving Tuskegee Airmen.
“This means that we have recognition at the national level, even 60 years later, that we accomplished something important,” said William Broadwater, 81, of Clinton, Maryland, a bombardier and former Tuskegee Airmen president, at the March 30 ceremony.
“What we accomplished hasn’t always been recognized for what it really meant to the country,” said Col. Charles McGee, 87, a retired fighter pilot from Bethesda, Maryland. “There was meaning in civil rights that, you might say, preceded the civil rights movement.”
From 1942 until after World War II, 994 black fighter and bomber pilots were trained at the segregated Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama, along with thousands more who served as enlisted men in support roles. More than 400 of the pilots served in combat, flying bomber escort, strafing and patrol missions from bases in North Africa, then Sicily and finally Italy.
Once in combat, they excelled. “It really was the first time that a large group of blacks were involved in so technical an area successfully,” said McGee. “It set the background that dispelled the myths, the biases, in some cases outright racism, that had been official Army policy.” McGee flew 136 missions in World War II, another 100 in Korea and 173 in Vietnam, probably a record for any three-war fighter pilot.
Walter McCreary, 89, of Burke, Virginia, also attended the ceremony. The son of a railroad worker, he had graduated from Tuskegee University in 1940 and already had a civilian pilot license when he joined the Airmen as one of the first black fighter pilots. He flew 88 missions before being shot down on a strafing run, subsequently spending eight months in a German prison camp. With humor, he says that he did not try to escape. “And pass for what? Maybe a Caucasian could blend in. No way I could blend in.”
McCreary said he encountered no racism from the German guards or fellow POWs. In fact, it was only after he and other freed prisoners stopped to eat at a St. Louis cafeteria, on their way home, that there was any trouble. When a waiter objected to McCreary’s presence, a fellow POW – “a rangy, white Texan” – called the manager, took him by the collar, and announced that “We just got through fighting one war. You want another right now?”
President Bush, who spoke at the ceremony, noted that “Even the Nazis asked why they would fight for a country that treated them so unfairly.”
Then he turned and saluted them.
The Airmen stood and returned the salute.
The crowd burst into thunderous applause.