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On Clipped Wings

As America's first black military pilots, Tuskegee airmen faced a battle against racism

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By war’s end, some 450 of the 992 airmen trained at Tuskegee had served overseas, completing 1,578 missions, destroying 260 enemy planes and sinking a German battleship. In some 200 escort missions, they never lost a single bomber to the enemy. They earned 95 Distinguished Flying Crosses, a Distinguished Unit Citation and 8 Purple Hearts. There were sacrifices. Sixty-six Tuskegee airmen were killed in action and 32 became prisoners of war. “Their performance during the war influenced president Harry S. Truman to sign an executive order [in 1948] making integration in the military a reality,” said Col. Roosevelt Lewis, who runs the Tuskegee airport and helps keep the pilots’ legacy alive. “The Tuskegee airmen laid the foundation for the modern civil rights movement.”

In 1998, the National Park Service established the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site at Moton Field and in 2002 opened a temporary visitor’s center on a hill overlooking the airfield. The triple-wide trailer is lined with 1940s-era photographs of airmen in pressed khakis attending classes and at graduation ceremonies, and in bomber jackets, hoods and goggles, posing with aircraft as they prepare for war.

The park service’s $29 million plan to restore Moton Field and its historic buildings includes a 90-acre park and a hangar to serve as a museum, complete with some of the unit’s original planes. “We’re going aircraft shopping,” said Susan Gibson, then a park service representative. “There are quite a few of the originals out there. We’re doing extensive research into the minutiae; the paint, the plants, the bricks that were here; even the mortar will be the same.”

With completion of the restoration at least four years away and many of the Tuskegee pilots in their 80s, the long-range plan is a critical issue, Gibson said. “The airmen’s story without the airmen is a different story. That’s why it’s so important that we get this done quickly and beautifully.”

“We’re losing the guys fast,” said Dryden, who wrote about his war years in a 1997 book, A-Train: Memoirs of a Tuskegee Airman. He attends most of the fly-ins and gives talks around the country. “It’s a sentimental journey,” he said, but Tuskegee’s legacy has lessons for the present and future.

“The reunions are an inspiration to black youth,” Dryden added. With African-Americans today making up just 2.5 percent of the Navy’s pilots and 2 percent of the Air Force’s, one of the event’s themes is encouraging minorities to consider careers in aviation. Opening doors for others, Dryden said, “was the greatest motivation that kept us going.”

Moton Field “is the nest,” Lewis added. “This is where black aviation took giant leaps.”

 
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