HUNTSVILLE, Ala. -- It was seemingly just a question.
"Can we sit out on the veranda so the neighbors can see that everything is OK?"
Retired Lt. Col. Leo Gray was an American airman, fighting for his country in WWII, defending the world from the threat of Adolf Hitler, when he went to a country fair in Italy and met a woman. She invited him to join her and her 13-year-old daughter, who was learning English, for dinner.
When the meal concluded, she posed the question, seemingly innocent on her behalf, but loaded with meaning.
After all, Gray was black.
"They told people stories about us," Gray said. "The guys would go into town and people would run in their houses and shut the windows and everything because they were afraid of us. They were advised that we were barbarians. We all had tails. We all had venereal disease and we ate women and children. She wanted people to see that I hadn't eaten anybody. This was the way it was when we got there. Once they found out we wouldn't eat them, they opened up and we had a great time."
Back at home in the United States, a similar tale of openness could not be told. But thanks to Gray and his fellow Tuskegee Airmen, that story has changed.
Seven Tuskegee Airmen paid a visit to Huntsville for the Aug. 9 F-16 "Red Tail" Tuskegee Airmen dedication ceremony and ribbon cutting at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center's Aviation Challenge. The F-16 was used by the Tuskegee Airmen in the Air Force Reserve, according to retired Navy Capt. Dr. Deborah Barnhart, chief executive officer for the U.S. Space & Rocket Center. The event concluded Armed Forces Celebration Week in the Tennessee Valley on a patriotic high note.
"I don't think you can find a more proud group of young American men than those who went through the pilot training program at Tuskegee Army Airfield," Gray said.
There was a time in U.S. history when African-Americans were considered unworthy and too inferior to serve in the military in capacities greater than labor battalions and other support positions. Gray and his fellow comrades were part of an Air Force experimental flying unit, known today as the Tuskegee Airmen, that would prove just how wrong that discrimination was.
As it became apparent to President Franklin Roosevelt that the United States would likely go to war with Europe, a pilot training program was created, with the intention of building a reserve of trained civilian fliers in the event of a national emergency, according to the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force. Then-Tuskegee Institute began participating in the program, after leaders decided African-Americans should too bear the responsibility of defending the U. S. against its enemies. The Institute, located in Tuskegee, Alabama, was to be the sole supplier of black military pilots in WWII.
There was never a question for the airmen whether or not they would serve their country. When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, their desire only intensified.
"It's our country," said retired Lt. Col. George Hardy.
"Our families. We didn't want to speak German or Japanese. We had as much a right to fight for our country as anybody else," Gray said. "As a matter of fact, we probably can trace our ancestry beyond most of the people in the country. I can go back to 1680. It wasn't even a country then."
About 1,000 pilots, who went on to become fighter pilots, navigators or bombardiers, were trained at Tuskegee from 1941-46, according to Tuskegee University.
"There was absolutely no difference in the training we had than the training white pilots had," Gray said. "The only difference, that I could ascertain, was they did not have to deal with the aspect of racism. Once we left the base we were on our own. As long as we stayed on base we were OK. Tuskegee was like an oasis. You get off that base and God help you."
Four fighter squadrons, the 99th, 100th, 301st and 302nd, comprised the all-black 332nd Fighter Group. The 99th Fighter Squadron, the first black flying unit, activated in March 1941, and two years later, in the spring of 1943, deployed to North Africa, entering combat in June, according to the Air Force Historical Research Agency. The 332nd Fighter Group was later relocated to the all-black Ramitelli Airfield in Italy mid-1944.
From June 1944 to April 1945, at least 311 combat missions were conducted by the Tuskegee Airmen, with 179 of those being bomber escort missions. The airmen have one of the lowest loss records of all escort fighter groups and were in constant demand for their services by allied bomber units, according to Tuskegee University. A total of 96 Distinguished Flying Crosses were bestowed on the airmen for their actions in WWII.
"I had no qualms about going off to war with my fellow Tuskegee Airmen, (they didn't call us that then), because I knew we were good, that we were as good as anybody else, and we could take care of each other," Gray said.
As a result of their success, the Tuskegee Airmen helped break down racial barriers in the military. President Harry Truman issued executive order 9981 July 26, 1948, declaring, "there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion or national origin."
"Before there was Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, before there were others, the Tuskegee Airmen, young 18- to 26-year-olds did these things in the military and in our country," said retired Air Force Col. R.J. Lewis, chairman for the U.S. Space & Rocket Center. "And they so moved the sitting president, Truman, until he had it investigated and integrated the armed services of the nation, and that was the basis of the integration of the larger American society. In the mid-60s when integration did start, there was that example of the Tuskegee Airmen, already in the military around the world. The military made a tremendous contribution to integration and to people in this nation getting to know each other and getting along."
When the airmen returned from WWII, they returned to a country that had defeated Hitler, but still was fighting its own war of equality. Retired Master Sgt. James Sheppard applied with the airlines in New York City as a trained mechanic, having worked with aircraft not yet seen commercially, but was told, "If the white passengers see you out there working, they're not going to buy any tickets." Gray was offered a job, and a week before he was scheduled to start, was told he was overqualified and could not be hired because he was black. Retired Col. Charles McGee was in the middle of a haircut when the barber realized he was black and refused to finish it. Some men carried the "Green Book," which let African-Americans know which hotels they could or could not stay at.
"On the one hand you could see a change was beginning, led by the service, but we still couldn't eat in any restaurants we walked into," McGee said.
Gradually, the landscape began to change, thanks in part to the Tuskegee Airmen.
"When I say the Tuskegee Airmen example was a game changer, it truly was," Lewis said. "And it still is. That's why we need to tell the story, and continue to tell the story. To motivate our young people today, so that they can follow their example."
They didn't set out to change history, but they did so just the same.
"We didn't have role models like they have today," Gray said. "We had very few blacks as role models. There weren't many blacks who had achieved notoriety in the positive sense, like these young folks have today."
"We had no one to appeal to. We had to do what we had to do," said Donald Elder, who served as a corporal. "If somebody asks, 'Who are the Tuskegee Airmen?' We're a bunch of good old red-blooded American boys who fought for their country and did it well."