Tuskegee Airmen say goodbye to one of their own

January 20, 2012

Funeral services have become a familiar scene and, often, a reunion of sorts, for the remaining members of the Tuskegee Airmen, the first group of African American fighter pilots to serve in the military. And so it was once again Friday as a few of the men gathered at Arlington National Cemetery to say farewell to Lt. Col. Luke J. Weathers Jr.

“I’ve gone to more of these than I can count,” said retired former Tuskegee Airman Bill Broadwater, 85, of Upper Marlboro. “It’s getting down to just a few of us here.”

A new George Lucas film is inspired by the first African American aerial combat unit, which fought in World War II. Fewer than 100 of the original 990 airmen remain.

The story of the Tuskegee Airmen, who fought against German forces even as they were considered second-class citizens on the home front, has gained greater prominence this year with the airing of a PBS documentary and the movie, “Red Tails,” which debuted Friday.

The family of Weathers, who worked for the Federal Aviation Administration in the District, elected to bury him the day of the movie premiere, not so much because of the film as to make a gesture encouraging people to remember the airmen, family members said.

Many of the Tuskegee Airmen in attendance had already seen the movie in various pre-screenings — some attended a showing at the White House this month.

“Maybe it’s a bit of a story,” said retired Col. Charles E. McGee, who went through training with Weathers. “But it’s based on the facts. It’s good for people to remember.”

Weathers, who died in October at 90, was not one for the spotlight, relatives said. Although Weathers has been credited with downing two German fighter planes that attacked one of the escorts he was leading and went on to receive a congressional gold medal in 2007, he rarely spoke about his experience with his five children.

So when Lucasfilm sent his daughter, Trina Weathers Boyce, an advance copy of “Red Tails,” she was surprised to realize near the end of the movie that her father was portrayed.

“I learned more about him in that movie than he ever told me,” Weathers Boyce said. “I was like, ‘Wow, that’s my daddy.’ ”

His eldest daughter, Wanda Weathers Smith, said the only sign her father ever betrayed about the danger of his experience came at the frequent Tuskegee airmen reunions. Her father always took his own personal moment of silence to honor the men who had been lost in the war.

“That was his way,” Weathers Smith said. “He didn’t need to talk about it to pay respect to them.”

On a gray, chilly Friday morning, it was Weathers’s life that was honored. The service bore all the markers of military decorum: the flyover of four F-16s in a “missing-man formation,” a color guard firing off a three-gun salute and a bugler playing taps as Weathers’s flag-draped casket was lowered.

But after the service, the mood was less somber. Members of the East Coast chapter of Tuskegee Airmen Inc., talked casually with Weathers’s extensive family, which includes 10 grandchildren.

Broadwater, a former president of the chapter, noted that much of the legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen rests with future generations. The ranks of the airmen are dwindling at the annual reunions, and he bears increasing responsibility for outreach programs about them. Last year, he went to 16 speaking engagements in February, which is Black History Month. He also helps run the group’s scholarship program, encouraging young blacks to pursue careers in aviation.

In August, the Tuskegee Airmen Inc. held its 40th annual convention at National Harbor in Prince George’s County. Thirty-three names were read aloud at the convention’s Lonely Eagle Ceremony, which marks the deaths of airmen with a punctuated ringing of a bell.

The ceremony has been taking a lot longer lately.

“I will be joining him [Weathers] soon,” Broadwater said, laughing. “And I’m one of the young guys left.”

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