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Driving up to the USS Hornet in Alameda, CA today, I was flooded with warm memories. In 1997 I attended the ceremonies that closed the Naval Air Station Alameda with my two sons, 4 and 16. It happened also that the Hornet was open to the public that weekend, and we had a great time exploring what was then a very huge, empty, rusty, and frankly historic ship.
We stumbled on a full military ceremony taking place on the flight deck that day, complete with band, officers and full Admiralty attending. Fifteen years or so later, I still recall the unexpected surge of what could only be described as Patriotism. I remember it coursed through me with the rhythm of the Sousa march. It was thrilling, and as I said, unexpected. I had aims and goals to make sure my sons did not have to enlist. I wasn't sure I wanted to support foreign military activities with their lives. My youngest son, then four, would be brought up by a Vietnam Veteran Father, who volunteered and had come home to a disenchanted view of soldiery. He wanted neither his son, nor mine, to experience anything that smacked of recruiter promises, drum beats, bugles and military glory.
Today, I ventured back to the Hornet after hearing about a special “Living Ship Day” event honoring the Tuskegee Airmen. A cold, rainy day, this time with little accompanying fanfare, it was another surprisingly touching event, and appropriate that such a momentous occasion should be added to the Hornet’s impressive history. The USS Hornet CV-12 is one of the 24 legendary Essex-class aircraft carriers built during and after World War II. Built at Newport News, Virginia, and the eighth ship to be named “Hornet,” she is one of the most decorated ships of the US Navy. Hornet is rightfully a National Historic Landmark and a real National Treasure, as are the Tuskegee Airmen we were there to honor.
The Tuskegee Airmen were the first African-American military aviators in the United States Armed Forces and the only African-American pilots in combat in the Army Air Forces during World War II. They were members of the 332d Fighter Group and its assigned 99th, 100th, 301st, and 302d Fighter Squadrons. Today, aboard the USS Hornet, we got to meet 6 of the original Tuskegee Airmen. As Lt. Lee Roy Gillead related to the small but attentive crowd, “We were part of an experiment – experimentation - to prove that black men could be integrated into service.” Not coincidentally, George Lucas’ soon-to-be-released Red Tails film is a fictional tale inspired by the true story of America’s first all black aerial combat unit. The film’s title comes from the distinctive red painted tails on their planes. In real life, a red airplane tail wasn’t the only segregation these men were subjected to in the 1940’s. The film, by the way, got about an 87% ‘good’ rating from the Tuskegee Airmen.
By 1945, of the original 500 Tuskegee “volunteers,” 401 were trained to fly. Fighter pilots were deployed overseas. Bomber pilots stayed in the fight by supporting the troops from the U.S. Later awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, together, they fought and flew with distinction – more than 15,000 flight hours were clocked between the 5 air pilots present. Lt. Lee Roy Gillead trained in the B-25 Bomber program and is a Tuskegee author and historian. Also there to receive commemorative and honorary awards were Capt. Edward Woodward, who joined the Tuskegee Squadron in 1945; Capt. Les Williams - the first pilot to graduate from the B-25 Bomber program (“He likes to dance,” quipped Gillead); Sgt. Clyde Grimes who served in intelligence for the Tuskegee Squadron; Lt. Burl Smith - trained as a fighter pilot; and Lt. Col. Harold Hoskins, class of 46A who also served in Vietnam 1963-1964. He retired in 1971 with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.
In fact, the military service of each of the men present outlived the expectations of a program designed with the assumption that the men would fail. “White men went up rank easily and if they served with distinction and worked hard, that was fine.” “But, if you were a Red Tail, it took fifteen years to make Crew Chief, and nobody black was a Commander.” “They figured they knew none of us would ever make it 15 years, because we couldn’t integrate.” “Turned out, that didn’t happen.”
Impressive as the USS Hornet Museum has become, complete with docent tours, flight simulator and exciting overnight group adventures, the sacred feel of this monument to both war and peace, hate and love, was overshadowed by one of Gillead’s civil-rights aware stories. Before the President’s death in 1945, FDR ordered all Base Commanders to designate “white and black” areas on U.S. Military bases. Some Commanders passively resisted, but a group of black officers were arrested when they refused to leave the “white” Officers Club. Soon, under “Order 85-2”, “mixed white and black teams” were sent out to do the designating and the paperwork. Gillead recalled there were teams of 2 white and 2 black men, but “maybe there were 3 white and 2 black – I don’t recall.” Under threat of Court Marshall, black military members were required to sign an Agreement to the segregation orders. Refusing to sign, Gillead and others were arrested, and sent to a detainment camp at a military base in the US’ South. There, they awaited court marshal and possible death behind tall fences with armed guards, while POWs were allowed the freedom to shop and mingle on base, all within their sight. When FDR died and Truman took over as Commander in Chief, Gillead said they all waited in the camp to see what would happen. The charges against them were dropped, and they were sent to a segregated South Carolina military base to establish their unit, led by an African-American Commander.
Every person at today’s celebration felt the distinct honor that it was to be in the Tuskegee Airmen’s presence, and to hear their incredible, and never more poignant stories. Many of the people there owe today’s freedom to attend and become a soldier to the men seated before us. Vice Admiral Manson K. Brown, of the US Coast Guard, gave an emotional thanks to them as the 1st African American Admiral to attain 3 Stars. Admiral Brown is Commander, Coast Guard Pacific Area. He serves as the operational commander for all U.S. Coast Guard missions within the half of the world that ranges from the Rocky Mountains to the waters off the East Coast of Africa, and concurrently serves as Commander, Defense Force West, and provides Coast Guard mission support to the Department of Defense and Combatant Commanders. Admiral Brown assured these heroic men that “Racism is still present in the military, but it’s much more subtle today.” Some of the children – notably from all races – fidgeting and looking for the exciting part to begin, weren’t terribly impressed, but they should have been. They will be when they grow up and discover more about who these Tuskegee Airmen are and why they were there to see them. I’m sure many of them just stumbled on today’s event, like my sons and I did 15 years ago. Hopefully, none of them, whether black or brown or red or yellow or white, will ever have to experience what these military pioneers faced in 1940’s America.
Today, when Party Politics is at an all-time low, it’s never been more important to examine our history and ask questions like, “Will the government treat us fairly?” “Will the men we choose to represent us, all of us, honor our civil rights?” “Can we trust the people with power to remove prejudice and self-interest from that representation?” Historically, and prospectively, the answer pool is grim. Lieutenant Gillead aptly commented that “Power doesn’t give up anything!” “You gotta yank it from them.” Depending on who gets elected into office this fall, there may be many more people in a position that requires they start yanking. In truth, we don’t know who any of these men may vote for in November. We don’t know what their position is on birth control or how they feel about keeping religion out of our government. We can infer they will be on whichever side is against institutionalized, maintained or sustained stereotypes that build social and racial barriers between people of any kind. They’ll be about education, opportunity, and equal, easy access to it. They’ll be for anyone who thinks education is a good investment in our future.
Because they are distinguished and honored U.S. War Veterans, they’ll be about continuing to have security while providing for the security of even the people who may be massively and horribly wrong. They’ll support a future where a middle-aged man can lovingly share a story and expresses heart-felt appreciation for the bravery of the men who, like the father who was lost in battle when he was 13 days old, also flew P-47’s and P-51’s. Not for a second did it matter that one man was white, the other black. They’ll be for whoever lets people of all colors and thoughts and beliefs make their own choices, serve their country, live proud and be free.
I heartily invite you to explore the USS Hornet Museum, in my “home town” of Alameda, CA and on the website athttp://www.uss-hornet.org. It’s always in need of your support and your visits! Please find out more about this very special and important part of our American History and the Tuskegee Airmen athttp://www.tuskegeeairmen.org/
Comments are welcome! Share your stories! Keep your negative remarks for another day – let’s just honor these men and what they did for ALL Americans!