Tuskegee Airmen Land in Tuskegee 75 Years Later

Tuskegee Airmen - Circa May 1942 to Aug 1943. (U.S. Air Force photo)
Tuskegee Airmen - Circa May 1942 to Aug 1943. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Ten of the original Tuskegee Airmen returned Tuesday to where they made history 75 years ago at Tuskegee, Ala. and were honored during the anniversary commemoration events at Moton Field's National Historical site and Montgomery.

Those honored include George Hardy, Leslie Edwards, Eugene Richardson, Ted Lumpkin, Levi Thornhill, James Shipley, James H. Harvey III, George Boyd, Val Archer and Samuel Sams.

Tuesday marked the date the legendary group was initiated on March 22, 1941, in what would be dubbed the "Tuskegee Experiment." They were the first group of 16,000 black fighter pilots and personnel, who answered the call in the midst of World War II, racial inequality and poverty.

The day began in Moton Field where staff from the National Park Service and the Tuskegee Airmen Foundation along with military cadets, officers and government officials welcomed the airmen, their family and friends and public to visit the Tuskegee Airmen museums, sit in the cockpit of a replica aircraft and take pictures with the guests of honor.

A historic flyover kicked-off the occasion with different aircraft from the 99th Flying Training Squadron, the 100th Fighter Squadron, the 301st Fighter Squadron and the 302nd Fighter Squadron, all of which represent the original fighter squadrons belonging to the Tuskegee Airmen's 332nd Fighter Group and are still active today.

The event was focused on the youth and education and the floor was opened up for students to ask the airmen questions. The museum's auditorium was filled with students and educators from the Macon County School System and Georgia.

The sacrifices the Tuskegee Airmen made should inspire youth, said Brigadier General Leon Johnson, the National President of Tuskegee Airmen Incorporated and board chair of the Tuskegee Airmen Foundation.

"We're here to talk about the young people in the room and I'm going to leave you with three words that symbolize what the Tuskegee Airmen did- progress demand sacrifice," Johnson said "Nothing in life happens without someone making a sacrifice ... someone sacrificed for you to be here today."

Aisha Williams, 14, an eighth grader at Tuskegee Institute Middle School, said the Tuskegee Airmen have inspired her. Because of their drive to succeed, she wants to pursue Junior ROTC in high school.

"I look up to their bravery and their courage," Williams said. "It's an honor to be here with them today."

Fighter pilot, George Hardy, 90, of Sarasota, Fla. offered his advice to the youth, stressing education.

"The main thing is you must have a goal. You must want to do something and you strive for it, and you must have some determination to get there," Hardy said. "You may have an obstacle, but you must overcome them."

Hardy retired as a lieutenant colonel and first flew with the 99th Fighter Squadron, flying 21 combat missions over Germany. He continued to serve in the Korean and Vietnam War.

Camellia Floyd brought her 5-year-old daughter, Chloe Floyd and her 9-year-old son, Christopher Floyd from Lee County out to the museum to meet with the airmen. She said her grandfather, was a Tuskegee Airmen and that it's important for her children to witness living history.

"It's important as a parent, because we have so few still living to tell the story and for children of any age to have this experience to speak with them and to hear their stories first-hand is a blessing," Floyd said.

The airmen were thrilled and eager to share their stories with all who asked.

Tuskegee Airmen

Staff Sgt. retired Leslie Edwards, 91, served as a flight chief with the Tuskegee Airmen. Back then, black men and women simply asked for a chance to prove themselves.

"The United States government pulled together a group of black men who they were convinced could show what they could do in aviation," Edwards said.

"There were those who were convinced it was going to fail ... but we were given a chance and that's what people in American have always asked for, a chance, equal opportunity and this has proven how equal opportunity has made American better."

The experiment proved to be a success and it dismissed the myth that black men were not capable of flying something as complex as an aircraft.

Years later, in 2007 President George W. Bush awarded them the Congressional Gold Medal, the nation's highest honor, because of their exemplary combat record. It was that record, which inspired Harry Truman to eliminate racial divides in the military services.

By the end of the war, the Tuskegee Airmen only lost 27 ships against enemy fighters during their 179 bomber-escort missions, compared to other 15th Air Force P-51 groups that lost an average of 46 ships.

The Tuskegee Airmen would complete 1,578 total combat missions for the Fifteenth and Twelve Air Forces, destroying 150 enemy aircraft on the ground and 112 in air-to-air combat.

At the time when he served as a Tuskegee Airmen fighter pilot, 2nd Lt. Eugene Richardson, 90, of Philadelphia, wasn't concerned about making history. He wanted to fly.

"I was a cadet here and a student flyer. I finished flight school in order to be a fighter pilot for single engine fighters in March of '45," Richardson said. However, he never had a chance to see combat.

"I went to combat training, and Hitler heard I was coming over seas and he surrendered," Richardson joked. "My dream was just to fly an airplane, I didn't know about history or any of that famous stuff. I got to fly an airplane and that was my dream come true."

Famously known as "Red Tails" because of the red hue painted on their P-47 and P-51 tail wings to distinguish them from other escort ships, Tuskegee Airmen quickly became legendary for their superior flying performance as bomber-escorts, protecting them during the war against the Nazis.

For intelligence officer, Ted Lumpkin, 96, of Los Angeles, it is almost unimaginable to believe what he and other Tuskegee Airmen helped achieve. He served with the 100th Fighter Squadron in Italy.

"To represent what it does today to people is probably the most satisfying thing, because when we came back from the service, it was not as nice as it is now. People then, didn't realize what we had done and what it meant to this country and to ourselves," Lumpkin said.

It was not until years later, that a book was written on their exploits, that the world began to publicly recognize their achievements they were dubbed, the Tuskegee Airmen.

Staff Sgt. James Shipley, 93, traveled from Missouri to Moton Field, where he said he was given his basic training in 1942 and served as a crew chief overseas.

Shipley maintained P-51, P-49 and P-48 aircraft for three pilots stationed in Italy during the war. He prides himself on maintaining their crafts well enough to bring them home safely after each mission.

"They went on 77 or so missions until they went back home," Shipley said. "We were fortunate enough that no one had to return home because a plane was acting up ... I still talk with one of my pilots who shot down three enemy planes."

Shipley is proud to have helped eliminate racial divides in the military, because that is how it should always be, he said.

"I look at a man at what's in his heart, not his color of his skin, that's what I judge people for," Shipley said.

Levi H. Thornhill, 92, of California, served as a crew chief with the 302nd fighter squadron and continued to serve in the Air Force until he retired as a major. He had no words for the pleasure of being at Moton Field except to smile.

James H. Harvey III, 97, also remained in the military until he retired as a lieutenant colonel. He traveled from outside of Denver for the anniversary event and said he flew a pilot for the 99th Fighter Squadron.

George Boyd, the former wing commander for Kansas with civil Air Patrol, retired as an Air Force major and now lives in Wichita, Kan. He served with the Tuskegee Airmen as a radar observer and later served in Korean and Vietnam wars.

Tech Sgt. Val Archer, 86, served as an airplane mechanic and later as an Aircraft Instrument Specialist from 1945-1949 for the Tuskegee Airmen's 332nd Fighter Group.

Cpl. Samuel Sams Jr., 94, from Louisiana, served as a clerk for the 99th Fighter Squadron.

Later that night, a reception and gala dinner was held at Montgomery's Renaissance Hotel downtown to raise money for student scholarships through the Tuskegee Airmen Foundation. Last year the Tuskegee Airmen Youth Aerospace and STEM Academy was created to be a lasting memorial to the Tuskegee Airmen.

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