WASHINGTON — Air Force Lt. Gen. Charles "Chick" Cleveland flew 145 combat missions in Korea and Vietnam, shooting down at least five planes during a career in which he logged more than 4,500 flying hours.
The 87-year-old Cleveland is one of only 1,447 U.S. pilots designated as American Fighter Aces, a title reserved for those who shot down at least five enemy aircraft in aerial combat during World Wars I and II, Korea and Vietnam.
As president of the American Fighter Aces Association, Cleveland accepted another honor Wednesday on behalf of himself and the 76 other living members: the Congressional Gold Medal, Congress' highest civilian award.
"If there's an elite among fighter pilots, it's these men," Cleveland told a crowd of about 500 people at a Capitol ceremony that included about three dozen members of the elite fighter group.
The Fighter Aces "helped shorten the wars and saved lives," said Cleveland, of Montgomery, Ala. "These men are disappearing but must not be forgotten."
House Speaker John Boehner said the daring missions flown by the Fighter Aces "changed the course of American-fought wars throughout modern history. These Fighter Aces risked it all to defend freedom and democracy around the world."
Boehner, R-Ohio, was among several congressional leaders to speak at Wednesday's ceremony.
"We are the land of the free because of our fighter aces," said Rep. Sam Johnson, R-Texas, a former fighter pilot who flew 87 combat missions in Korea and Vietnam. "I cannot think of a more appropriate way to honor their heroism than with the Congressional Gold Medal."
Air Force Brig. Gen. Frank Gailer Jr., a World War II Fighter Ace, served as wingman for famed pilot Chuck Yeager. Gailer, 91, of San Antonio, called the ceremony "fabulous" and said he accepted the gold medal on behalf of himself and those who did not live to see it awarded.
Cleveland engaged in a little politics during his speech. While Congress may have a low approval rating among the American people, "I guarantee that the approval rating for Congress among the Aces is sky high," he said to applause and laughter.
Another mission accomplished.