Gratitude Long Deferred
Tuskegee Airmen Tell Blue Ridge Gathering About Their Lengthy Wait For Recognition
Posted: February 6, 2013
Grant S. Williams (left) and Harry Quinton reminisce about their service with the groundbreaking Tuskegee Airmen, the first unit of African-American military aviators in U.S. history. The now-honored veterans said it was different when they came home from World War II: Despite his service, Quinton said, “I was just another colored boy.” (Photo by Nikki Fox / DN-R)
“I was just another colored boy,” said Quinton, 87, of Salisbury, Md.
Never mind that the men had become members of a groundbreaking group, the first all-black squadrons full of military aviators, bombardiers, navigators, aircraft mechanics and other support staff, now called the Tuskegee Airmen.
Never mind that they fought for their country, forever revolutionizing the U.S. military, despite overt racism and legal segregation.
“It was actually 65 years after [returning home] when we first got any real recognition,” Quinton told a crowd crammed into Blue Ridge Community College’s Plecker Workforce Center auditorium Tuesday afternoon. The free event was part of BRCC’s Black History Month activities.
That crowd welcomed the men wholeheartedly, offering them three standing ovations before they left the room.
“It was truly a blessing … to see their passion, still,” said Anntonette McEwen of Verona, whose son, Chezara, is entering the U.S. Air Force in April. The men reassured her that he’s headed in the right direction, she added.
Eric Miller, 26, of Harrisonburg, called the event “inspirational,” noting the differences between the Airmen’s experience in the military and his own. Miller, a BRCC student, returned from Afghanistan in 2009.
“For the most part, everybody’s treated the same,” he said.
But not quite 75 years ago, Williams, 92, a Clover native, and Quinton had to prove that they even belonged near a plane.
A 1925 U.S. Army War College report concluded that blacks were unfit for combat due to what the report said was inherent inferiority to white servicemen. Before 1940, blacks were not allowed to fly for the U.S. military.
The Tuskegee Army Air Field, which opened in 1941 in Tuskegee, Ala., was the first military pilot training ground for African-Americans. Almost 1,000 men were trained there before the facility closed in 1946.
The “red-tailed angels,” as Tuskegee Airmen bomber-fighter escorts were called, quickly became well-known for their ability to protect bombers. It wasn’t long before American bomber crews starting requesting their escort, Williams said.
The Tuskegee Airmen destroyed or damaged more than 400 enemy aircraft and earned 58 Purple Hearts, in addition to a slew of other medals.
Williams performed clerical duties, while Quinton was an aircraft mechanic. Although neither Williams nor Quinton served as a pilot, they are two of just a few hundred surviving original Tuskegee Airmen.
While no one has a firm grasp of just how many men who served with the group are still alive, fewer than 200 pilots remain.
“My greatest pleasure was that I got to work with a group of men who got to fight for the right to fight for their country,” said Williams, wearing a red suit jacket, red tie and a still-unwavering passion for his country.
The Tuskegee Airmen paved the way for the full integration of the military. An executive order issued by President Harry Truman in 1948 called for that integration.
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