Six decades after completing their World War II mission and coming home to a country that discriminated against them because they were black, the Tuskegee Airmen are getting high honors from Congress.
That gratitude will be expressed Thursday when the legendary black aviators will receive a Congressional Gold Medal during a ceremony in the Capitol Rotunda. The award is the most prestigious Congress can offer.
"It's never too late for your country to say that you've done a great job for us," Ret. Col. Elmer D. Jones, 89, of Arlington, Va., said in an interview. Jones was a maintenance officer during the war.
President Bush, members of Congress and other dignitaries are expected to join some 300 airmen, widows and relatives.
Ret. Lt. Col. Walter L. McCreary, who was shot from the sky during a mission in October 1944 and held prisoner for nine months in Germany, said it hurt that the group had not been honored for its accomplishments.
"We took it in stride. It's a recognition long overdue," said McCreary, also 89, of Burke, Va.
The Tuskegee Airmen were recruited into an Army Air Corps program that trained blacks to fly and maintain combat aircraft. President Roosevelt had overruled his top generals and ordered that such a program be created.
But even after they were admitted, many commanders continued to believe the Tuskegee Airmen didn't have the smarts, courage and patriotism to do what was being asked of them.
Nearly 1,000 fighter pilots trained as a segregated unit at a Tuskegee, Ala., air base. Not allowed to practice or fight with their white counterparts, the Tuskegee Airmen distinguished themselves from the rest by painting the tails of their airplanes red, which led to them becoming known as the "Red Tails."
Hundreds saw combat throughout Europe, the Mediterranean and North Africa, escorting bomber aircraft on missions and protecting them from the enemy. Dozens died in the fighting; others were held prisoners of war.
It long had been thought that the Tuskegee Airmen had amassed a perfect record of losing no bombers to the enemy during World War II. But new research has cast doubt on that theory.
Two historians recently said Air Force records and other documents show that at least a few bombers escorted by the Tuskegee pilots were downed by enemy planes. A former World War II bomber pilot said last year that his plane was shot down while escorted by the unit.
Congress has awarded gold medals to more than 300 individuals and groups since giving the first one to George Washington in 1776. Originally, they went only to military leaders, but Congress broadened the scope to include authors, entertainers, notables in science and medicine, athletes, humanitarians, public servants and foreign officials.
Other black recipients include singer Marian Anderson, athletes Joe Louis, Jesse Owens and Jackie Robinson, civil rights activists Roy Wilkins, Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King, the Little Rock Nine, Rosa Parks and Dorothy Height, and statesmen Nelson Mandela of South Africa and former Secretary of State Colin Powell.
The actual medal for the airmen, made possible through legislation by Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., and Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., will go to the Smithsonian Institution for display. Individual airmen will receive bronze replicas.
On the Net:
Congressional Gold Medal: http://clerk.house.gov/art_history/house_history/goldMedal.html
Tuskegee Airmen: http://www.tuskegeeairmen.org