Tuskegee Airmen Still Soaring to New Heights

Culpeper, VA--The Tuskegee Airmen flew more than 15,500 combat sorties between May 1943 and June 1945, most notably recognized for the highly successful bomber escorts over North Africa and Europe during World War II.

But before becoming aviation heroes abroad, these brave African American men had to overcome racial adversity at home.

Their poignant stories are detailed in the movie, "Rise Above," shown inside an air-conditioned tractor-trailer parked at the Culpeper County Airport on Sunday.

The audience was literally taken to new heights thanks to daring aerial flight footage and surround sound speakers, shaking the metal stadium seating.

As part of the Commemorative Air Force Red Tail Squadron's traveling exhibit -- packed with fascinating first-hand accounts by Tuskegee Airmen and black-and-white war footage -- this documentary chronicles the obstacles African American aspiring pilots endured while pursuing a chance to fight alongside their white counterparts.

Allowed to join the segregated United States military, blacks were often referred to service tasks and supporting roles.

"[But] once the airmen entered the war, they excelled," declared the movie's narrator. "Working as a close-knit team, the airmen were assigned to protect Allied bombers from enemy fighters."

Making it easier for the Allies to spot them in the air, the Tuskegee Airmen painted their plane's tails bright red, earning the nickname the 'Red Tails."

Although white bomber crews wouldn't bunk with the black airmen, they did however request the protection of the "Red Tails" when it came time to bombing Berlin, the narrator says.

While the diligence of the "Red Tails, didn't break all barriers, it did earn them respect," the narrator notes.

Man on a mission

Commanding officer Lt. Col. Benjamin Oliver Davis Jr.'s leadership is often credited for the success and accomplishments of the Tuskegee Airmen.

A graduate of theUnited StatesMilitaryAcademyat West Point in 1932,Davis was assigned to teach military tactics to black recruits at Tuskegee Institute inAlabama.

"Under the disciplined leadership of Col. Davis, the 332nd Fighter group flew over 200 bomber escorts missions, achieving one of the best combat records of World War II," the narrator explained.

Lt. Col. Leo Gray, 100th Fighter Squadron, 332nd Fighter Group, United States Air Force (retired) said, "You stayed with the bombers because if you didn't Davis would be on your butt," Gray recalled in the film. "And it was easier to deal with the Germans than to deal with him."

Restoring history

Making sure Americans don't forget about the airmen's assiduous sacrifices, a group of aviation enthusiasts including pilot Don Hinz, a CAF member, committed themselves to keeping the memory of the "Red Tails" alive.

This group restored a rare P-51 Mustang, honoring the legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen.

"I think what really spurred him towards the Red Tail project was when the decision was made to model it after the Tuskegee Airmen and that there was going to be an education process and that there was going to be a story that would be told with this airplane," explained Capt. Ben Hinz, of his late father. "It wasn't just a bunch of old guys flying airplanes because it's cool, it was the ability for this airplane to tell a story."

Tour operators Terry and Jeanette Hollis travel across the country, sharing this exhibit at schools and various airshow events.

Next weekend, the Mississippi couple will take the exhibit to Pittsburg.

Asked why she does this, Jeanette explained, "To inspire young people. There's not a whole lot of inspiration traveling the country and because these young people are our future."

Strother Washington, Jr. and his wife, Lillian, made the trip from Maryland on Sunday to see the exhibit.

"The movie was inspirational," he said. "It was real. I'm not an emotional guy, but a couple times my eyes were filling up a little bit."

Lillian Washington said she's "glad this story is being told."

"It's being kept alive not only for us, but for our young. They didn't have the exposure so I think it's very important for them to hear the story," she said. "It gives them home and shows them that you can rise above the adversity."

Much deserved recognition

In 2007, President George Bush presented the surviving airmen with the Congressional Gold Medal, acknowledging their bravery and accomplishments during the war.

The Tuskegee Airmen also witnessed the inauguration of the nation's first black president Barack Obama in January 2009.

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