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Capitol salutes Tuskegee Airmen

The all-black unit of World War II aces is honored by Congress and President Bush.

March 30, 2007|Adam Schreck | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — William B. Ellis, a Los Angeles resident who at 90 still introduces himself as Wild Bill, chuckled as he recalled being told that blacks like him couldn't cut it as fighter pilots.

"They said we didn't have the muscle coordination to fly airplanes," he said Thursday amid tales of dogfights and aerial derring-do.

Were they ever wrong.

Ellis and other African Americans who enlisted to fight in World War II went on to become some of the most feared and respected pilots in the war. White bomber pilots would ask to fly with them, so impressive were their skills.

Yet those same black pilots and their crews -- the men who would come to be known as the Tuskegee Airmen, after the Alabama airfield where many trained -- continued to face racism at home after the war.

On Thursday, Congress took a step toward righting that wrong.

In a ceremony beneath the Capitol dome, lawmakers awarded their highest civilian honor, the Congressional Gold Medal, to the Tuskegee Airmen.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) called the recognition long overdue.

"With the Gold Medal today, we take another in a long series of steps toward victory at home," she said.

President Bush bestowed an honor of his own.

Standing beside former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, a retired Army general and former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he offered the unit members a salute -- a gesture, he said, "to help atone for all the unreturned salutes and unforgivable indignities" of the past.

"The Tuskegee Airmen helped win a war, and you helped change our nation for the better," Bush said. "On behalf of the office I hold, and a country that honors you, I salute you for the service to the United States of America."

About 1,000 fighter and bomber pilots were trained at the Tuskegee Army Air Field from 1942 to 1946, and thousands of others worked as mechanics or support staff.

Louis D. Hill, 90, of Los Angeles once administered psychological and motor-skills tests to incoming cadets.

He said he didn't mind waiting more than 60 years for such an honor.

"It means an awful lot," he said at a reception in the Library of Congress afterward. "It's hard to describe how good it makes me feel that they were able to recognize these accomplishments."

About 450 of the pilots who trained at Tuskegee flew combat missions in the war, escorting bombers over Europe and North Africa. Their unit was known for its red-tailed P-51 Mustangs.

Credited with shooting down 111 German planes in more than 15,000 combat missions, the unit is thought to be the only fighter group to have never lost a bomber.

Bomber pilots would specifically request their escort, sometimes unaware they were being protected by African Americans.

The first Congressional Gold Medal was awarded to George Washington by the Continental Congress in 1776. Initially presented only to military officers, it has since been bestowed on artists, athletes and pioneers in the fields of science, humanities, exploration, social science and civil rights.

Two-thirds of the House of Representatives must co-sponsor legislation to designate recipients, and a similar proportion of the Senate must do the same before a bill can be considered.

Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) were the main sponsors of the Tuskegee Airmen bills.

Rangel, a Korean War veteran, drew extended applause when he spoke in the Rotunda. He made a point of thanking Bush, who signed the legislation last year, for attending the ceremony.

"Nobody white or black in this country can understand how God has given you so much courage from a nation that rejected you because of your color," he told the airmen, some of whom needed walkers and wheelchairs.

About 300 members of the unit attended the ceremony and received bronze replicas of the award. The actual medal will be displayed at the Smithsonian Institution.

Hiram E. Little, 88, of Atlanta could hardly contain his excitement.

"I have been blessed to live this long to receive a medal from the United States Congress and the president. Now there's a once-in-a-lifetime thing."

adam.schreck@latimes.com

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