Recognition has been a long time coming for Milton Crenshaw and other members of the Tuskegee Airmen, the first all-black unit in the Army Air Corps.
But now, in the span of one week, Crenshaw has been honored by the state of Arkansas, and he and other survivors of the unit will receive the Congressional Gold Medal for their work as fighter pilots during World War II.
Without men like Crenshaw, the unit would not have been as successful, Gov. Mike Beebe said Tuesday as he presented Crenshaw a plaque for his dedication, service and commitment.
"I don't think there's any question that nobody had a greater track record as a unit in World War II than the Tuskegee Airmen," Beebe said. "Over 100 kills and ... not a single loss in combat as a result of enemy fire. That didn't just happen, somebody trained those guys to be that good."
Two historians have said research shows the Airmen did lose some planes to enemy fire during World War II, and one former bomber co-pilot said last year that his plane was shot down while being escorted by the unit. Few would question, though, that the Tuskegee Airmen made a powerful contribution.
Crenshaw, 89, was named Primary Flight Instructor in 1942 at Tuskegee Army Air Field in Tuskegee, Ala.
"I sent all the other guys over there," Crenshaw said. "My job was to shove them out and make sure they had a good understanding ... of how to go out, fight and come back to home base."
On Thursday, he and about 200 other survivors of the Tuskegee Airmen will receive the Congressional Gold Medal in the Rotunda of the Capitol, a venue their race once would have prevented them from entering. The medal is the highest civilian award bestowed by Congress, and also may be awarded to military personnel.
As a Tuskegee flight instructor, Crenshaw trained the hundreds of airmen who - despite being treated like second-class citizens as black pilots in a segregated military - developed a reputation of aggressiveness, overcoming poor equipment and the most dangerous bomber protection assignments.
After the war, Crenshaw returned to Little Rock and helped develop an aviation program at Philander Smith College. Later, he was sent to Fort Sill, Okla., to help integrate the artillery there.
Though he is now retired, Crenshaw still travels, telling students about the Tuskegee Airmen and his involvement in integrating the Army. He said he tries not to think too much about the awards, but he's still excited and honored.
"I'm up in the air, I never expected it," he said.
On the Net:
Tuskegee Airmen: http://www.tuskegeeairmen.org/
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