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March 29, 2007

Frank Walker honored with Tuskegee airmen

WASHINGTON — Frank Walker of Richmond was among about 300 surviving Tuskegee airmen Thursday as the famed World War II unit was honored in Washington with a Congressional Gold Medal.

Trained at a segregated airbase in Tuskegee, Ala., the black fighter pilots served as bomber escorts over Europe.

“These men in our presence felt a special sense of urgency,” President George W. Bush said during a ceremony in the Capitol Rotunda. “They were fighting two wars. One was in Europe and the other took place in the hearts and minds of our citizens.”

After the war, the pilots returned to a country that discriminated against them because of their race.

“Even the Nazis asked why African-American men would fight for a country that treated them so unfairly,” the president said.

Bush then saluted the airmen, saying he made the gesture to “help atone for all the unreturned salutes and unforgivable indignities” they endured.

Bush, members of Congress and other dignitaries joined the veterans, widows and other relatives for the ceremony, presided over by U.S. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

“The true reward is not in a medal,” McConnell said. “It is in the nation you defended and shaped through your heroic efforts in the skies of Europe.”

The men trained at Tuskegee Army Air Field in the 1940s did what none of their counterparts in the Army did, said McConnell, the Senate’s Republican leader. “You fought to protect a country that, in large part, didn’t want you in combat. By doing so, you transformed that disdain into admiration and respect,” he said.

“Thank you for serving our country, then and now. And thank you for leaving it better than you found it.”

The unit’s Congressional Gold Medal will go to the Smithsonian Institution for display. Each airmen will receive a bronze replica.

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