WASHINGTON (American Forces Press Service, March 29, 2007) - Before a U.S. aircraft broke the sound barrier, the Tuskegee Airmen overcame a daunting social hurdle: breaking the Army Air Corps' color barrier.
In the Capitol Rotunda here today, President Bush and Congress awarded the Congressional Gold Medal to the Tuskegee Airmen, more than 60 years after the 332nd Fighter Group's World War II achievements that were made bittersweet by the racial discrimination they endured after returning home.
"I thank you for the honor you have brought to our country, and the medal you are about to receive means that our country honors you," Bush said to the roughly 300-member audience of surviving airmen, Tuskegee Airmen widows and other relatives, before presenting the congressional award.
Bush said he has a strong interest in World War II airmen because one raised him.
"(My father) flew with a group of brave young men who endured difficult times in the defense of our country. Yet for all they sacrificed and all they lost, in a way they were very fortunate," he said. "They never had the burden of having their every mission, their every success, their every failure viewed through the color of their skin; ... nobody refused their salutes."
The Tuskegee Airmen fought two wars -- one in the European theater and another in the hearts and minds of the nation's citizens, he said.
Saying he wanted to "offer a gesture to help atone for all the unreturned salutes and unforgivable indignities," Bush held his straightened right hand to his brow and saluted the airmen. After returning his salute, the airmen remained standing and applauded.
Speaking on behalf of the Tuskegee Airmen, Dr. Roscoe Brown, a former commander of the 100th Fighter Squadron, 332nd Fighter Group, thanked Bush and the House and Senate for "voting unanimously to award this medal collectively to the pilots, bombardiers, the navigators, the mechanics, the ground officers, the enlisted men and women who served with the Tuskegee Airmen."
"Over 60 years ago we were flying in the skies over Europe defending our country, and at the same time fighting the battle against racial segregation," he said. "Because of our great record and our persistence, we inspired revolutionary reform which led to integration in the armed forces in 1948. As the president said, (this) provided a symbol for America that all people can contribute to this country and be treated fairly."
Brown, a Distinguished Flying Cross recipient and the first U.S. pilot to down a German Messerschmitt jet, said that the Tuskegee Airmen are very pleased to have been in the forefront of the struggle for freedom and justice in this country.
Sen. Carl Levin and Rep. Charles Rangel were the chief congressional champions in the House and Senate to get the medal awarded to the airmen.
"Nobody, white or black, in this country can understand how God has given you so much courage," Rangel said, addressing the airmen. "From a nation that had rejected you because of your color, said you couldn't fly, said you just weren't worthy, you had to go out there and prove to them just how wrong they were.
"And how tragic was it to see, ... after you came back to this great country, how German prisoners of war were treated better than you were on your return'" he said. "But somehow, whatever God had given you, it didn't cause you to stop. Every one of you in the different towns that I've been to are still continuing to protect this great country, though perhaps not in the skies, but in the battles on the streets, talking to the kids, giving them self-esteem."
Levis listed some of the airmen's feats: 15,000 combat sorties flown, 260 enemy aircraft destroyed, 1,000 black pilots flew missions, 150 Flying Crosses and Legions of Merit earned, and more than 700 Air Medals and clusters earned.
Recognizing other African-American groundbreakers, former U.S. Secretary of State and retired Gen. Colin L. Powell named the Golden 13, the Montford Point Marines and the 555th Paratroopers -- the Tuskegee Airmen's naval, Marine, and Army counterparts, respectively.
"I benefited from what you and so many others did. It is a rich history," he said. "I stand so proudly before you today but I know in the depth of my heart that the only reason I'm able to stand proudly before you today is because you stood proudly for America 60 years ago."