RALEIGH, N.C. — The Tuskegee Airmen, America’s black fighter-pilot unit in WW II, was honored at the White House on Thursday for their service. President George Bush awarded a Congressional Gold Medal—the highest and most distinguished award the Congress has for civilians.
Over the course of the war, there were 994 pilots trained at the army air field in Tuskegee, Ala., Today, there are only a few hundred of the airmen left, and several of them live in the Triangle.
“They are the greatest fliers this nation has ever seen,” said Leonard "Hawk" Hunter, a historian from Raleigh who has followed the airmen.
“I was trained as a twin-engine pilot,” recalled Harold Webb of Raleigh, a Wake County commissioner.
“We went through one training program after another,” remembered Stewart Fulbright, who lives in Durham.
“I was just a kid when I went in,” said William McDonald, also a Durham resident.
Vash Eagleson, an airman's son who was born while his father was in training at Tuskegee, says the project was not designed for the glory its members achieved.
“The Tuskegee Airmen experiment was actually intended to fail,” said Eagleson, who lives in Raleigh.
“They were men who this country decided that could not fly because of the color of their skin,” Hunter said. But the men could fly, and they did it with distinction.
The squad known as the “Red-Tail Angels” was trained to escort bombers on their missions and protect them from enemy fighters.
“The Red-Tail Angels never lost an escorted bomber to the German air force,” Hunter said. Webb said they had to do it while fighting a second war—for their own rights.
“The other war we were fighting was Jim Crowism and segregation right here in America,” Webb said.
“There was a lot of discrimination going on. There was a lot of racial tension” said Eagleson, the airman’s son.
The surviving Tuskegee Airmen were invited to pay $38.50 each for a replica of the one Congressional Gold Medal Bush presented to the group.
Several Tuskegee Airmen who live in the Triangle on Thursday questioned why the government would refuse to spend a few thousand dollars on medals for the airmen who gave so much to their country.
“How can we be spending billions of dollars in Iraq, but we can't spend $30,000 on these guys 60 years after their accomplishment?” Eagleson asked.
“Why? Why, America? Why? That's my question,” said Hunter.
WRAL called the the office of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and a spokesperson said the U.S. Mint routinely charges for replicas of the award. But a private investor came forward at the last minute with a donation that allows each airman to receive his own medal free of charge.