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.
Walker was honored by Kentucky Gov. Ernie Fletcher and former Miss America Heather French Henry during the Kentucky Veterans Welcome Home Celebration at Battlefied Park in August.
Hours ahead of Thursday’s event, Tuskegee Airmen — some walking with the aid of canes, others pushed in wheelchairs — flooded Capitol hallways on their way to being recognized for their heroism more than 60 years ago.
“It’s never too late for your country to say that you’ve done a great job for us,” retired Col. Elmer D. Jones, 89, of Arlington, Va., said in an interview this week. Jones was a maintenance officer during the war.
Retired Lt. Col. Walter L. McCreary, who was shot from the sky during a mission in October 1944 and held prisoner for nine months in Germany, said it hurt that the group’s accomplishments had not been honored years earlier.
“We took it in stride. It’s a recognition long overdue,” said McCreary, also 89, of Burke, Va.
House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., the highest-ranking black member of Congress, echoed McCreary’s sentiment. Many of the Tuskegee Airmen also trained at Walterboro Army Airfield in his congressional district.
“People are now beginning to come to grips with our history,” Clyburn said Thursday in an interview. “Our history is what it is. It’s never going to change.”
The Tuskegee Airmen were recruited into an Army Air Corps program that trained blacks to fly and maintain combat aircraft. President Roosevelt had overruled his top generals and ordered that such a program be created.
But even after they were admitted, many commanders continued to believe the Tuskegee Airmen did not have the smarts, courage and patriotism to do what was being asked of them.
After an initial class of 13, nearly 1,000 black pilots trained at Tuskegee. Not allowed to practice or fight with their white counterparts, the Tuskegee Airmen distinguished themselves from the rest by painting the tails of their airplanes red, which led to them becoming known as the “Red Tails.”
Hundreds saw combat throughout Europe, the Mediterranean and North Africa, escorting bomber aircraft on missions and protecting them from the enemy. Dozens died in the fighting; others were held prisoners of war.
It long had been thought that the Tuskegee Airmen had amassed a perfect record of losing no bombers to the enemy during World War II. But new research has cast doubt on that theory.
Two historians recently said Air Force records and other documents show that at least a few bombers escorted by the Tuskegee pilots were downed by enemy planes. A former World War II bomber pilot said last year that his plane was shot down while escorted by the unit.
Congress has awarded gold medals to more than 300 individuals and groups since giving the first one to George Washington in 1776. Originally, they went only to military leaders, but Congress broadened the scope to include authors, entertainers, notables in science and medicine, athletes, humanitarians, public servants and foreign officials.
Other black recipients include singer Marian Anderson, athletes Joe Louis, Jesse Owens and Jackie Robinson, civil rights activists Roy Wilkins, Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King, the Little Rock Nine, Rosa Parks and Dorothy Height, and statesmen Nelson Mandela of South Africa and former Secretary of State Colin Powell.