They came from as far away as Hawaii, silver-haired heroes converging on their nation’s capital to celebrate their place in history.
But the fact that there were so many fewer of them this year was painfully obvious to the heroes.
They once numbered 15,000 — 992 pilots, 200 navigators, bombardiers and administrators, as well as legions of crew members and support and medical personnel who came to be known as the Tuskegee Airmen.
Seventy years later, their ranks have fallen precipitously. Only a few more than 100 of the “originals” from the Tuskegee days were among those who came to Washington this week for the 40th annual convention of Tuskegee Airmen Inc. at National Harbor’s Gaylord hotel.
“We are losing so many that it is hard to keep track,” said Col. Charles E. McGee, 91, of Bethesda, whowas inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in July for flying 409 combat missions in three wars: World War II, Korea and Vietnam.
McGee and the rest of the Tuskegee Airmen were pioneering aviators who broke the color barrier for black pilots in the U.S. military during World War II.
This week, they moved a little slower and stood a little less tall, but the response of the men, women and children who crossed their paths demonstrated their continuing rock-star status.
On Thursday, in a poignant annual tradition called the Lonely Eagles Ceremony, the airmen paid tribute to those who have died since last year’s convention. As they sat in rapt silence, the names of 33 of their comrades were called out as a bell tolled.
They stood as they heard the name of a friend or loved one. Included was Charles H. Flowers, 92, of Glenarden, who died in January. Charles Flowers High School is named in his honor. Most of the room was standing when the last name was called.
Then McGee spoke up. “George Fulton Walker III,” he called out. Three others added names of people who also had been left off the list.
“For me, the ceremony isn’t sad, but a reverent moment,” McGee said. “You have to realize that one day it will be your name on that list.”
William Broadwater, 85, of Upper Marlboro, a former lieutenant who trained at Tuskegee as a bomber pilot and later served as president of the local and national chapters, expressed concern about the dwindling numbers.
“We were able to locate 380-some remaining members who were mobile enough to come to Washington for the Congressional Gold Medal ceremony” in 2007, he said. “There were a couple hundred more who couldn’t make it. We had to go to their homes to give them their medals. It’s hard to know how many are remaining because we are losing 20 to 30 to our Lonely Eagle chapter every year.”
When they first converged on an airfield in Tuskegee, Ala., in 1941 as part of a U.S. Army Air Corps program set up after civil rights groups pressured Congress to create better opportunities for blacks in the military, they didn’t consider themselves trailblazers, the Tuskegee Airmen said. They were young men, and a few women, who wanted to help their country defeat the enemy overseas.
It took months of pressure for them to gain the opportunity to join white U.S. troops on the front lines in Europe, but by the time the war ended in 1945, they had racked up an impressive list of achievements and proven that their color didn’t translate into limited intellect, ability or dedication, said Brig. Gen. Leon Johnson, president of Tuskegee Airmen Inc.
He pointed to battles at home — such as the arrest of 101 black bomber pilots and crew members after they entered an all-white officers’ club at Indiana’s Freeman Field in 1945 — as an example of the resistance they faced from other troops.
A recent Air Force recruiting poster featuring the Tuskegee Airmen recognizes the struggle and bears the motto: “They fought Hitler and Mussolini in combat and Jim Crow at home.”
Mitchell Higginbotham, 90, of Los Angeles, a lieutenant who served as a pilot during World War II, was discussing how his roommate at Tuskegee, Roger C. Terry, had been arrested at Freeman Field when a stranger walked up.
“I know the story of what happened at Freeman Field,” the man said as he pumped Higginbotham’s hand. “Thank you for what you did for our country.”
Unable to secure work as pilots after the war, they took jobs wherever they could find them, in business, government and some as aviation administrators. They were among those who leveled the heaviest pressure against airlines to employ blacks as commercial pilots. They urged young blacks to take up aviation as a career. In 1972, they banded together to choose a name and purpose — to draw minority youths into the aviation careers that had led to their various successes.
“The proudest accomplishment of my life was, at age 19, having my wings pinned on me,” said Broadwater, who went on to become one of the nation’s first aviation administrators and a nationally recognized aviation expert. “It greatly benefited me in my life. I learned a skill. After the war, I wasn’t able to get a job as a pilot because they wouldn’t hire us, but I got a job as an air traffic controller that led to a successful career in aviation. It all started because I was a qualified pilot.”
Activities during the five-day convention included a golf tournament and special presentation to the group at a Washington Nationals game Tuesday. On Wednesday, they went to Andrews Air Force Base to see a Stearman PT-13 aircraft in which they had trained all those years ago. They also took a trip Thursday to the new Martin Luther King Jr. memorial on the Mall. A gala Friday is expected to draw 1,000 airmen, loved ones and supporters.
Pia Jordan, 55, of Baltimore attended the program to pay homage to her mother, Louise Virginia Lomax, a nurse who died in April. Lomax rarely spoke of her time in Tuskegee.
“Coming here has helped me to mourn my mother,” she said. “I don’t believe in superstitions or anything, but on the day we arrived, a butterfly landed on my finger and stayed there for about four minutes. Butterflies mean a lot to me, and it made me think of my mother. I even said, ‘Hi, Mom!’ Being here has made me feel close to her again.”