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Tuskegee Airmen Honored At World War Two Memorial - 2004-06-01

Americans are flocking to the new memorial in Washington to pay homage to the 16 million U.S. men and women who served in World War Two -- one of the most devastating wars in modern history that took the lives of more than 50 million people. Celebrations include veteran reunions, storytelling and big band performances -- giving veterans a sense of recognition that many say is long overdue. VOA’s Brent Hurd reports on one group of fighters being honored.

Military analysts say much of World War Two was fought and won in battles in the sky. One group of aviators who contributed to the success of U.S. air power were the Tuskegee airmen -- black American pilots who overcame the discrimination of the time to protect critical U.S. bomber missions deep in Nazi German territory.

One of the airmen is 84-year-old retired Colonel Charles Edward McGee, a decorated veteran of three wars. He recently visited the new memorial located on the National Mall between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument. “As I look at this monument, I don’t get the feeling that we’re glorifying war,” he says. “We are uplifting the service of all of those who were a part of the war, the sacrifices they gave individually and collectively for a cause that felt just and certainly added to years of world peace.”

Before World War Two, African-Americans like Mr. McGee were banned from becoming fighter pilots. “The black Americans coming out of ten years of depression were just as interested in the jobs that were available in the war build-up, just as interested in performing service for their country, but because of the segregation policies they had been excluded or relegated to the service roles,” Col. McGee says.

Most African-Americans in the military at that time were assigned to cook or clean. Few had combat opportunities. This policy was based largely on a 1925 study conducted by the U.S. War College, says Alan Gropman, a military historian.

“The study was a very racist report saying the American Negro is a mentally inferior species of the human population and very low in the scale of human evolution,” he says. “It said the cranial cavity of the Negro is smaller than that of a white person.”

The report concluded African-Americans could not perform technical tasks and did not have the moral fortitude necessary to follow orders in battle.

But on the eve of the war, U.S. lawmakers finally passed a law requiring the Army Air Corps to create the first ever all-black fighter pilot squadron. The Army reluctantly began training black cadets at a military installation in Tuskegee, Alabama. In 1943, the first squadron of these aviators, including Colonel McGee, entered battle in the Mediterranean skies.

“They expected the experiment to fail,” he says, “but they were surprised when they realized their policy was based on generalizations and biases rather than on experience. Once given the opportunity, those myths and biases that had controlled policy in the past were no longer valid.”

The Tuskegee airmen fought with valor and captured the attention of military leaders says Alan Gropman: “The success of the Tuskegee airmen, the fact that they flew 200 escort missions and never lost a bomber to enemy fire, the fact they shot down 111 enemy aircraft, demonstrated to the leaders of the U.S. Air Force that segregation was based on a false premise -- the premise being that blacks were inferior to whites. What the Tuskegee airmen proved was that blacks, given the same training as whites, could do the same job.”

In post-war 1949, the U.S. Air Force began integrating blacks and whites in the same units. Mr. Gropman says this integration was one of the factors that led to the civil rights movement of the 1960’s and the end of racial segregation throughout America.

Back at the memorial, Colonel McGee reflects on his life, saying he couldn’t have written a better script. “I’m happy to see people here -- many who had family involved in the war,” he says. “Their service is memorialized in a way that is educational and uplifting and certainly important to the future of the country.”

World War Two veterans are a dwindling number. As many as a thousand a day are departing this life. But veterans like Colonel McGee are heartened that their memory is now enshrined in the nation’s capital.