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The Tuskegee Airmen

posted on September 7, 2007

Meet some unsung heroes of World War II, men who overcame not only the expected obstacles of war but also the indignities of prejudice. They're the Tuskegee Airmen and their stories inspire respect, gratitude, and the question, what helped these airmen rise above the racial discrimination.

Narrator: It's been more than sixty years since our nation entered into World War II, and it would seem that that's long enough for the tales of sacrifice and courage to have been told and the heroes and heroines honored. But there is one group of World War II fighters that has been forgotten until recently.

Daniels: These folks strike a note of pride -- a note of pride in our hearts.

Narrator: This group of men, called the Tuskegee Airmen because they trained together in Tuskegee, Alabama, were some of our nation's finest pilots. Like all African Americans in the military at the time, they were segregated and their contributions to the war effort were rarely reported in the mainstream press. Nevertheless they were known in African American circles as the best of the best.

Morris: You know, you have a number of people that believe that blacks didn't serve in combat and had nothing to do with it. Well, like I said, Iowa had twelve black Tuskegee Airmen. Six of them served in combat. And of those six flyers that served in combat, they had over 400 combat missions between six men.

Narrator: Not only did they fly an incredible number of missions, they also worked as a team to protect bombers flown by white pilots and they had a perfect record.

Gomer: We had that one feat: We never lost a bomber under our escort to enemy fighters. We were in demand after the bomber crews finely found out how successful we were. And if you notice, I believe that the aircraft out here had the name on it "By Request." that was because the bomber units started to ask for our escort.

Narrator: Despite their obvious talents and military rank, these officers were told to sit in the back of the train, go to the end of the line, and use second-hand equipment all because they were African Americans. But they ignored the daily indignities and excelled at their jobs. They were highly motivated.

Gomer: We not only fought for our country, for our race, for our families, we represented the 14 million black Americans that were fighting for first class citizenship.

Narrator: The story of these airmen finally became known to the greater public in 1995 when HBO produced a film about their struggles and successes. Airman and educator James Bowman says he thinks it's important for younger generations to know what happened.

Bowman: It is important for all kids, black and white and otherwise, to know about the extent to which all people participated in the military. Some against greater odds than others. This is the kind of thing that I think makes this country great, that we all have a stake in it.

Narrator: Iowans are starting to take note of the airmen. In 1997 a group of students from central alternative high school in Dubuque made it their class project to learn about the airmen and wrote a book about them. "Living in Iowa" told the story of how the students raised more than $10,000 to help restore a rare P51C, one the planes flown by the Tuskegee Airmen. That plane, one of only two 51Cs still flying, is managed by the Redtail Project in southern Minnesota. It has wowed historically minded crowds across the nation, including events in Dubuque and in Des Moines.

Spriggs: You can't imagine it. I mean it's highly emotional. Standing out here watching that 51, it was just like being back down in Tuskegee.

Harris: You feel like you're king of the world in that plane. You do things that others don't do, and so you always look forward to that.

Johnson: These gentlemen made it possible for me to succeed, and I think that's -- that's just an important piece for me.

Narrator: The plane brought generations together, like this airman and his grandson who got to sit inside the P51 cockpit.

Young Boy: Those are probably all the original dials and stuff.

Boswell: The dedication of this P51 memorial I think is something long, long overdue, but the day is here.

Narrator: On November 9 of 2002, six of the airmen and several widows of airmen attended a dedication ceremony held in Des Moines for a permanent memorial to Iowa’s Tuskegee Airmen. This full-sized fiberglass replica of a P51D will sit at the entrance to the Iowa Air National Guard 132nd Fighter Wing on the north side of the Des Moines International Airport. The memorial airplane was delivered, assembled, and painted by volunteers from the Iowa Air National Guard. The dedication ceremony and the plane were paid for by a conglomeration of businesses and social groups under the leadership of Robert V. Morris, CEO of the Fort Des Moines Memorial Park.

Morris: People ask me, well, why did you guys did it. I said, well, we did it because they deserve it. You know, if we don't do it, who is going to do it if we don't do it?

Narrator: Long after the words spoken here have been forgotten and the memories of the ceremonies have faded, these two aircraft, one flying high and one proudly displayed, will serve an important function: to remind us all that a dozen men from Iowa heroically stepped up to serve their nation and to show that they had the right stuff to make that nation proud.

Tags: civil rights Iowa veterans World War II

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