Even casual students of World War II are familiar with the Tuskegee Airmen, the lengendary group of African-American fighter pilots and ground crews who battled racism (and the enemy) in compiling an exemplary combat record in the skies over Europe. Under the leadership of Colonel (later General) Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., the Airmen, flying their familiar, red-tail P-51s, proved that black Americans had the mettle to take on the Luftwaffe--and deliver a decisive defeat.
More than 60 years after the Tuskegee Airmen returned home--to a nation that was still segregated--surviving members of that unit (and the widows of those who have passed on) will receive the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest honor that can be awarded to civilians. President Bush is scheduled to speak at today's presentation ceremony, which will be held at 1 p.m. in the Capitol Rotunda.
While the Army Air Corps initially fought proposals to train black pilots (and send them into combat), the combat record of the Tuskegee Airmen quickly destroyed the notion that African-Americans lacked the capacity to fly high-performance aircraft and lead combat formations. For years, it was believed that the 332nd Fighter Group (the unit's combat designation) never lost a bomber they escorted to enemy fighters. While that claim is now being disputed, it seems evident that the 332nd lost far fewer bombers on escort missions than all-white fighter groups. The 332nd's reputation for getting B-17s to the target--and back again--quickly spread through the European Theater, and bomber units often requested escort by the "Red Tails," if they were available.
Today, the spirit of the Tuskegee Airmen lives on in the Air Force. The 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing at Balad AB, Iraq, bears the designation and lineage of the World War II fighter group. The motto of the latter-day unit is "The Legend Continues." It's another fitting tribute to a group of airmen who were--and are--heroes, in the truest sense of that word.