Tuskegee Airmen Receive a Nation's Salute

Tuskegee Airmen receive their medals.
Tuskegee Airmen receive their medals. (By Michel Du Cille -- The Washington Post)

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By Avis Thomas-Lester
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 30, 2007

They flew in from across the country, dapper elderly gentlemen converging on the nation's capital for a long-overdue tribute. There was Lee Archer from New York, the only African American to be designated a flying ace in World War II. There was William "Bill" Terry of Los Angeles, the war hero who later went to law school but was prohibited from practicing because he had protested segregation in military facilities .

There were also the widows: Janie Cohen Ware of Long Beach, Calif., whose husband Ray worked in intelligence. There were grandchildren: Tara and Raphael Wall of Northwest Washington, who stood in for the ailing Willard B. Miller, a World War II pilot and engineer.

They gathered yesterday to watch the Tuskegee Airmen, more than 60 years after distinguishing themselves in war, receive the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest honor that Congress can bestow on civilians. President Bush gave the keynote address, and former secretary of state and retired Army Gen. Colin L. Powell lauded the airmen for paving the way for him.

"I thank you for what you have done for African Americans, but more, I thank you for what you have done for Americans," Powell told the filled-to-overflowing gathering at the Capitol Rotunda.

The ceremony drew more than 300 of the original Tuskegee Airmen: pilots, navigators, bombardiers, nurses, mechanics, engineers and others who were a part of the U.S. Army Air Corps experiment to put black aviators in the air.

After defending the nation with distinction in Europe, the airmen fought racism at home. "Even the Nazis asked why they would fight for a country that treated them unfairly," Bush said.

"I would like to offer a gesture to help atone for all the unreturned salutes and unforgivable indignities."

Bush then saluted the airmen, who rose to return the salute as the crowd burst into thunderous applause.

"Nobody -- white or black -- in this country can understand," Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) told the crowd, "how God has given you so much courage, from a nation that has rejected you because of your color, said you couldn't fight, said you couldn't fly, said you just weren't worthy -- and you had to go out there and prove to them just how wrong they were."

The medals for the airmen, the largest group to receive the honor, grew out of legislation shepherded by Rangel and Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) The award has several times been given to civil rights pioneers. Numerous dignitaries spoke, including House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), who elicited murmurs after repeatedly mispronouncing "Tuskegee."

But nothing could tamp down the excitement among the crowd in the sunny Rotunda and celebrating in a reception at the Library of Congress. Well-wishers sought to shake their hands and beg an autograph or photograph.

"This day means that we have recognition at the national level, even 60 years later, that we accomplished something important," said William Broadwater, 81, of Clinton, a bombardier and former president of the airmen's group.

Although several speakers brought up the disrespect the airmen experienced after returning from Europe, the airmen were forgiving and gracious yesterday. "We are so overjoyed," said Roscoe Brown, 87, of Riverdale, N.Y.

Archer and Brown were among six airmen called to the dais to officially accept the medals. Archer, 88, said he was frequently stopped by people on the street and thanked for his service. He was also told the nation could never repay the airmen for their sacrifices.

After Bush presented the medals yesterday, Archer said, "My comment is: paid in full."

Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.


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