A Top Honor For Soaring Achievements

Walter L. McCreary, 89, of Burke spent eight months in a German prisoner of war camp after his plane was hit by enemy fire in 1944.
Walter L. McCreary, 89, of Burke spent eight months in a German prisoner of war camp after his plane was hit by enemy fire in 1944. (Photos By Michel Du Cille -- The Washington Post)
By Michael E. Ruane and Avis Thomas-Lester
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, March 29, 2007

When Charles E. McGee slid his P-51 fighter, "Kitten," onto the tail of the fleeing German FW-190 in the skies over Austria in 1944, he fired his six big machine guns and struck a blow for civil rights back home.

Walter L. McCreary did the same a few months later, when his P-51 was hit by flak on a strafing run over Hungary and the cockpit floor began to slosh with what he thought was leaking gasoline.

And so did Woodrow W. Crockett's ground crews a few months after that, when they stopped a supply train and commandeered special gas tanks so their pilots could fly without running out of fuel.

Today, members of the famed black World War II aviation cadre now called the Tuskegee Airmen will be honored in the Capitol Rotunda for their history-making feats.

In a ceremony at 1 p.m., the airmen, including McGee, McCreary and Crockett, will receive the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest honor that Congress can give to civilians. President Bush is scheduled to speak, along with Colin L. Powell, former secretary of state, who received the medal in 1991.

The achievement of men such as McGee, McCreary and Crockett was simple: They were bold in battle and capable in command -- at a time when many in the military thought blacks could be neither.

"What we accomplished hasn't always been recognized for, really, what it meant to the country," McGee said this week. "There was meaning there, you might say, in a civil rights area that preceded what we know as the civil rights movement."

From 1942 through 1946, 994 black fighter and bomber pilots were trained at the segregated Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama, according to the group's Web site. More than 400 served in combat overseas, flying patrol and strafing missions and serving as bomber escorts from bases in North Africa, Sicily and Italy.

Ground and support crews were trained at Tuskegee and elsewhere, and all were assigned to exclusively black aviation units that went overseas. Once in combat, they excelled.

"It really was the first time that a large group of blacks were involved in a technical area successfully," McGee said. "It really set the background that dispelled the myths, the biases -- in some cases, outright racism -- that had been a part of Army policy."

And it helped to change the country, he said.

McGee, 87, of Bethesda, was an engineering student at the University of Illinois as World War II approached.

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