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"Bush, Congress honor the Tuskegee Airmen"



Thursday, March 29, 2007

Bush, Congress honor the Tuskegee Airmen
By DARLENE SUPERVILLE
The Associated Press 


WASHINGTON - President Bush saluted the Tuskegee airmen on Thursday, six
decades after they completed their World War II mission and returned home to
a country that discriminated against them because they were black.

"Even the Nazis asked why African American men would fight for a country
that treated them so unfairly," President Bush told the group of legendary
black aviators, who received a Congressional Gold Medal - the most
prestigious Congress has to offer.

"These men in our presence felt a special sense of urgency. They were
fighting two wars. One was in Europe and the other took place in the hearts
and minds of our citizens."

Bush then saluted the airmen, saying he wanted to offer the gesture to "help
atone for all the unreturned salutes and unforgivable indignities" they
endured.

Bush, members of Congress and other dignitaries joined some 300 airmen,
widows and other relatives for the ceremony in the Capitol Rotunda. Hours
ahead of the event, Tuskegee Airmen - some walking with the aid of canes,
others pushed in wheelchairs - flooded Capitol hallways on their way to
being recognized for their long-ago heroism.

"It's never too late for your country to say that you've done a great job
for us," retired Col. Elmer D. Jones, 89, of Arlington, Va., said in an
interview this week. Jones was a maintenance officer during the war.

Retired Lt. Col. Walter L. McCreary, who was shot from the sky during a
mission in October 1944 and held prisoner for nine months in Germany, said
it hurt that the group's accomplishments had not been honored years earlier.

"We took it in stride. It's a recognition long overdue," said McCreary, also
89, of Burke, Va.

House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., the highest-ranking black member of
Congress, echoed McCreary's sentiment. Many of the Tuskegee Airmen also
trained at Walterboro Army Airfield in his congressional district.

"People are now beginning to come to grips with our history," Clyburn said
Thursday in an interview. "Our history is what it is. It's never going to
change."

The Tuskegee Airmen were recruited into an Army Air Corps program that
trained blacks to fly and maintain combat aircraft. President Roosevelt had
overruled his top generals and ordered that such a program be created.

But even after they were admitted, many commanders continued to believe the
Tuskegee Airmen didn't have the smarts, courage and patriotism to do what
was being asked of them.

Nearly 1,000 fighter pilots trained as a segregated unit at a Tuskegee,
Ala., air base. Not allowed to practice or fight with their white
counterparts, the Tuskegee Airmen distinguished themselves from the rest by
painting the tails of their airplanes red, which led to them becoming known
as the "Red Tails."

Hundreds saw combat throughout Europe, the Mediterranean and North Africa,
escorting bomber aircraft on missions and protecting them from the enemy.
Dozens died in the fighting; others were held prisoners of war.

"The Tuskegee airmen left a segregated country to fight in war, and
unfortunately returned to one that was still segregated," House Speaker
Nancy Pelosi said. "Though Hitler was defeated, prejudice was not. ... Today
we are trying to right that wrong"

It long had been thought that the Tuskegee Airmen had amassed a perfect
record of losing no bombers to the enemy during World War II. But new
research has cast doubt on that theory.

Two historians recently said Air Force records and other documents show that
at least a few bombers escorted by the Tuskegee pilots were downed by enemy
planes. A former World War II bomber pilot said last year that his plane was
shot down while escorted by the unit.

Congress has awarded gold medals to more than 300 individuals and groups
since giving the first one to George Washington in 1776. Originally, they
went only to military leaders, but Congress broadened the scope to include
authors, entertainers, notables in science and medicine, athletes,
humanitarians, public servants and foreign officials.

Other black recipients include singer Marian Anderson, athletes Joe Louis,
Jesse Owens and Jackie Robinson, civil rights activists Roy Wilkins, Martin
Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King, the Little Rock Nine, Rosa Parks and
Dorothy Height, and statesmen Nelson Mandela of South Africa and former
Secretary of State Colin Powell.

The medal for the airmen, made possible through legislation by Sen. Carl
Levin, D-Mich., and Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., and signed last year by
Bush, will go to the Smithsonian Institution for display. Individual airmen
will receive bronze replicas.

On the Net:

Congressional Gold Medal: http://clerk.house.gov/art_history/house_hist
ory/goldMedal.html

Tuskegee Airmen: http://www.tuskegeeairmen.org

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