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For Actor Mitchell, Memorial Day is Dual Tribute - 2004-05-31

An African-American who was part of the first specially trained corps of Army pilots during World War II, and his celebrity son will commemorate Memorial Day together in Washington, at a special concert performance.

On Memorial Day, Broadway star and television actor Brian Stokes Mitchell will sing this patriotic song as a part of the National Memorial Day Concert, commemorating the 60th anniversary of D-Day.

The lead actor of Man of LaMancha and former actor on televisions "Trapper John, M.D." says it is a dual tribute. "Not only a salute to the people that gave their lives that day but also the people that are still alive that worked to make the country what it is today," he says.

He should know. His father is one of those living heroes. In the early 1940s, George Mitchell was a young electronics expert, trying to get ahead in an age when America was harshly divided along racial lines. Mr. Mitchell recalls that professional opportunities just did not exist for African Americans.

"I was a certified journeyman-electrician and I had a year of radio communications as part of my training. Philadelphia naval shipyard was looking for skilled tradesmen and tradespeople because they had many, many jobs open," says the elder Mr. Mitchell. "I went down to apply and the fellow said, 'You certainly are well qualified for the position, however, we do not hire you people - which meant blacks - in the trades. The only thing I have open for you is a janitorial position.'"

But in 1941, the United States was at war, and needed manpower. Many African-Americans were drafted, but were limited when it came to achieving rank.

George Mitchell was sent to Alabama to help train a special corps of African-Americans to become pilots. The group became known as the Tuskegee Airmen. "When Tuskegee came along, and they opened the Air Corps for blacks, this gave us an opportunity to show them. If you give us a chance, we will succeed. Because we have a lot of good people within the Negro race who are extremely well qualified. But the doors were shut," he says. "That is why they started Tuskegee. It was a segregated Air Force."

Eventually, nearly a thousand men graduated from the Tuskegee pilot training, hundreds were sent into combat overseas, and scores lost their lives.

George Mitchell says he still remembers the pride that the men of Tuskegee felt.

"At Tuskegee we felt, of course, give us a chance, and we will show you what we can do," he says. "And so Tuskegee, in spite of the fact of it being in the heart of the confederacy - Tuskegee, Alabama, below the Mason-Dixon line and a very hostile civilian population and being a segregated Air Force - that we would do the best job we can and show these people that we have the ability to get the job done."

About 10-years ago, George Mitchell's famous son decided he wanted to learn more about his family history, so he began filming long interviews with his grandmother, and later his father, asking them about the stories of their lives. Brian Stokes Mitchell says he learned a lot about how the Tuskegee airmen overcame a tremendous challenge.

"The adversity that the Tuskegee airmen were dealing with at the time because basically that program was put together with the thought that it would fail," he says. "It was not really designed with the idea that this would be something great, it seemed like at least part of the reason behind it was to kind of prove that African Americans were not going to be good pilots and were not going to able to do this and that the only things they could do was clean slop buckets and do kitchen duty."

His father told him a visit by President Franklin D. Roosevelt's wife, Eleanor, made a big difference.

"Of course that was proven very, very wrong when Mrs. Roosevelt paid a visit to the base and she was offered a ride in one of the airplanes by one of the white instructors and she said 'No, I want to go with him," and she pointed to one of the black pilots," says Brian Mitchell. "And that ended up making all of the [news] papers because it was kind of a shocking thing to do. And for her to put her confidence - the president's wife was going to be flown by this black pilot - that kind of really started changing the face of that."

The younger Mitchell will pay tribute to America's war heroes by singing the National Anthem, as well as a medley of songs from the 1940s. His father suggested some titles to him, remembering songs the soldiers used to listen to, including "Mairzy Doats," a hit in 1944, originally by the Pied Pipers.

Brian Stokes Mitchell says he will be proud to have his father in the audience at the concert, and prouder still to be able to pass along the stories he has heard to his young son.