WASHINGTON – When President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed legislation in 1941 allowing blacks to enlist in the military, a 21-year-old Herbert Flowers quit his job in Baltimore and headed south for flight training at a segregated U.S. Army Air Corps base in Tuskegee, Ala.
The young man who dreamed of flying and a college education had “no idea” that one day, the “Tuskegee Airmen” who trained at the base, America’s first black military pilots, would go down in history for their service.
Thursday, retired Army Air Corps Capt. C. Herbert Flowers II, 88, of Glen Arden, was one of about two dozen Marylanders to join more than 300 surviving members of the Tuskegee Airmen at the U.S. Capitol.
There, the men more formally known as members of the U.S. Army Air Corps 99th Pursuit Squadron, and the 332nd Fighter Group and 477th Medium Bombardment Group of the 15th U.S. Air Force, received the Congressional Gold Medal, America’s highest civilian award, for fighting in two wars: World War II and racial segregation.
“Overwhelming,” Flowers said later. “Never dreamed of it. Matter of fact, we never dreamed of making history. We were just doing a job, without regard to making history.”
“It is a very high honor,” agreed retired Air Force Col. Charles E. McGee, 87, of Bethesda. “Although it’s been a long time in coming, better late than never.”
The two men received individual replicas of the medal, which was first bestowed on President George Washington in 1776. The official medal will be placed in the Smithsonian Institution.
More than 60 years after their service, the aging warriors filed into the Capitol Rotunda to applause, whistles, cheers, and a herald by the U.S. Air Force Band.
The airmen had an up-close view of President Bush, who gave the keynote address, and other speakers, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi; Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid; President Pro Tempore of the Senate Robert C. Byrd; Rep. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee; Rep. Charles B. Rangel, D-N.Y., chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, and guest speaker retired Army Gen. Colin L. Powell.
“The Tuskegee Airmen helped win a war, and you helped change our nation for the better,” Bush said. “Yours is the story of the human spirit, and it ends like all great stories do, with wisdom and lessons and hope for tomorrow.”
America’s first all-black combat unit, the U.S. Army Air Corps 99th Pursuit Squadron, was created after Congress convinced President Roosevelt to enlist blacks in the military for the first time in an effort to strengthen the armed forces.
The War Department drafted stringent higher education standards and flight school requirements in hopes of discouraging enlistees.
Undaunted, Flowers and McGee, who both had some college education, joined African-Americans from Los Angeles to New York pursuing opportunity.
“We were really fighting for the opportunity for the jobs that meant a little better pay, fighting to be graded on our performance, not the circumstances of our birth,” McGee said. “We’re Americans, and the country was going to war, and we wanted to do our part and be treated in a way equal to all others.”
Over the next four years, the military trained nearly 1,000 black military aviators at a segregated Army air field near Tuskegee, Ala., and at the historically black Tuskegee Institute’s Moton Field.
The first class of 13 cadets began U.S. Army Air Corps flight school in July 1941. Five graduated at Tuskegee Army Air Field nine months later, said Ron Brewington, national spokesmen for the Tuskegee Airmen Inc.
Flowers, one of the school’s earliest cadets, enlisted in September 1941, and graduated in May 1942, then became a flight instructor teaching primary flight training at Moton Field.
“It was my job to take kids right off the street and teach them how to fly, the military way, and do combat maneuvers,” Flowers said.
Over the next four years, he trained 100 students, five students at a time, 10 weeks at a stretch. He didn’t always know after graduation when students went overseas.
“It was sort of sad to see them go.”
McGee joined flight school a year after Flowers and was sent to Italy in 1944, beginning a 30-year Air Force career. He served in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, and achieved an Air Force record of 409 missions and 1,151 combat hours.
“I actively flew 27 of my 30 years, which was unusual, but it was to my benefit because I enjoyed flying so much, and the opportunities came my way.”
Tuskegee Airmen faced rigorous pilot testing, and passed with “flying” colors.
“You caused America to look in the mirror of its soul and showed them that there was nothing a black person couldn’t do,” retired Army Gen. Colin L. Powell, the first African-American Secretary of State, told veterans at the ceremony.
Despite more than 15,000 sorties and 1,000 missions, the 332nd Fighter Group is the only fighter group in American history to never lose one bomber to enemy fire under their escort, Pelosi said.
Levin also noted 260 enemy aircraft destroyed, 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses and Legions of Merit and more than 700 Air medals and clusters among the airmen’s feats.
“They were so proficient that white bomber pilots did not just come to accept escorts by the Tuskegee Airmen, they requested the Tuskegee Airmen.”
It would have been easy, Bush said Thursday, for the Tuskegee Airmen to do little for America when the country entered World War II.
“After all the country didn’t do much for them. Even the Nazis asked why African-American men would fight for a country that treated them so unfairly,” he said. “Yet the Tuskegee Airmen were eager to join up.”
At the Rotunda, the Tuskegee Airmen found not just glory, but friendship, McGee said.
“We came together some 65 years back, and still can say we’re friends and comrades,” he said. “And sharing this great honor is heartwarming.”
Flowers reunited at the ceremony with four students he had not seen in 35 to 40 years, he said.
Now he is trying to decide what best to do with his medal.
“I want to put it somewhere where it will be safe,” he said, “and where it can be seen.” -30- CNS-3