Historic homecoming for Tuskegee Airmen as site opens

MOTON FIELD, Ala. -- Hundreds of aviators, mechanics and support personnel who worked at the Tuskegee Army Air Field and Moton Field, Ala., during the 1930s and '40s gathered once again in Tuskegee, Ala., Oct. 10 when the National Park Service memorialized the efforts of the first black pilots in the Army Air Corps, later the U.S. Air Force. 

The National Tuskegee Historic Site is now a place for old and young alike to learn about the achievements of the more than 10,000 men and women of the "Tuskegee Experience," a testing ground for black Americans to prove themselves as not just World War II pilots and aircraft maintainers, but as human beings equal to their white brothers-in-arms. 

Pilot training at Moton Field was an "island of hope, and island of opportunity and a place of achievements," said Dr. Roscoe Brown, one of the Documented Original Tuskegee Airmen, or DOTAs, who participated in a panel discussion prior to the opening ceremony. 

"We beat segregation, and now we have to take advantage of the opportunities," said retired Lt. Col. James C. Warren, a navigator who trained at Moton Field and author of "The Tuskegee Airmen Mutiny at Freeman Field," a book chronicling the arrests and subsequent punishments of 104 black Army Air Corps officers who attempted to enter a whites-only officers club in 1945. "It wasn't until 1995 that those courts-martial were removed from those officer's records. But they are gone now." 

It was those actions, as well as the achievements of black pilots during World War II, that led President Harry Truman to desegregate the Armed Forces three years later, Mr. Warren said. 

The Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site is housed in the only remaining original hangar at Moton Field. Interpretive and static displays also record the stories of the Civilian Pilot Training program at Tuskegee Institute, a federally funded program that was the precursor to the military pilot training at Moton Field. 

Thousands showed up for the opening ceremony, which included a flyover of four F-16s from the 187th Fighter Group at Dannelly Field, Ala. 

"Your courage has brought us closer to the ideals of our founding fathers," said Lynn Scarlett, the deputy secretary of the Department of the Interior. "You fought two wars - one against military forces overseas, and one against racism at home." 

Also in attendance were Alabama Governor Bob Riley and retired Lt. Gen. Russell Davis, one of the first student pilots at the Tuskegee Army Air Field and the current president of Tuskegee Airmen, Inc. 

"You set an example for the world," Mr. Davis addressed the DOTAs in the crowd. "You gave us all a little of that 'right stuff,' and you set a hallmark across the entire spectrum of society." 

The governor said he was honored to be in the presence of American heroes. 

"You are proof that no race has a monopoly on excellence, that no one group has a singular claim on heroism," he said. 

This history of the Tuskegee Airmen is undeniably praiseworthy. Upon deployment, the Airmen became part of the 332nd Fighter Group, composed of the 99th, 100th, 301st and 302nd African-American fighter squadrons. The Red Tails, so called because of the distinctive red paint on their planes, earned 112 aerial victories in World War II, and the group received two Presidential Unit Citations. Members of the group were also awarded Distinguished Flying Cross, Meritorious Service Medal, Purple Hearts, and in 2006, they were collectively awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in recognition of their service and sacrifice. 

For more information on the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site, visit www.nps.gov/tuin.