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Bush Signs Bill Awarding Tuskegee Airmen

Bush Signs Bill Awarding Tuskegee Airmen
Congressional Gold Medal

By David  Pluviose

A bill awarding the Tuskegee Airmen the Congressional Gold Medal swept through the U.S. Congress essentially unopposed and has been signed into law by President Bush. The bill received unanimous approval in the Senate and passed 400-0 in the House of Representatives. A medal ceremony is expected in coming months, and it couldn’t come too soon for the few surviving airmen, many now in their eighties.

“There are many that are still with us; there are some that are very frail, some that are still very active but were running out of road,” says Cora M. “Tess” Spooner, president of Tuskegee Airmen Inc. “Expediting this has not been easy, but thank God, it’s gotten done.”  Tuskegee Airmen Inc. is an umbrella organization composed of the airmen and their numerous supporters in 50 chapters nationwide.

The Tuskegee Airmen were a group of about 1,000 Black pilots making up the segregated 99th Fighter Squadron and 332nd Fighter Group of the Army Air Corps during World War II. Their exploits during the war are legendary, especially considering that the prevailing military attitude at the time considered Blacks incapable of aviation and unfit for leadership positions.

Known as “Red-tailed Angels” to the White bomber crews who sought their protection, the Tuskegee Airmen who served as escort fighters never lost a U.S. bomber to enemy attack — a distinction no other unit shared. On 15,553 combat sorties and 1,578 missions, the airmen destroyed 261 enemy aircraft, damaged 148 others and picked up nearly 1,000 military awards in the process. Their stellar performance is credited for motivating President Harry S. Truman to order the desegregation of the U.S. armed forces in 1948.

“Lately, we’ve been getting a lot of credit for things; I call it ‘late payment.’ At the time, I personally didn’t think I was changing society. I was just doing my job,” says Tuskegee Airman Lee Archer, who is credited with shooting down five enemy planes during the war.

Although the final vote was unanimous, it took a great deal of convincing to get some legislators to support the bill, says Emile Milne, legislative director and press secretary for Rep. Charles Rangel, D.-N.Y. Rangel was the principal House sponsor of the bill, which was first introduced in the Senate in February 2005 by Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich. Milne says getting 60 percent of the House to sign on as co-sponsors — a requirement for gold medal legislation — was “like pulling nails.

“It wasn’t easy. We had one Republican from California, one Republican from Texas — we just couldn’t get them to sign on,” Milne says. “Next thing you know, we got people signing on after the bill was passed — we’re still getting calls. We had some places that seemed surprisingly tough, like Illinois. The Republicans weren’t responding very well in that state.”

Spooner says that although many Democrats joined Republicans in not supporting the bill initially, there were other procedural and technical obstacles that had to be overcome before the bill was passed.

“In all fairness to the Congress, they said after the Navajo Code Talkers were given their collective group medal — and it was a much smaller group than [the] Tuskegee Airmen — Congress decided that they wouldn’t award a medal to groups anymore, only individuals. So this was an exception,” Spooner says. “Perhaps that was some of the pain and consternation in getting this legislation passed.”

The bill languished in the House until a leading member of Bush’s cabinet sent Rangel and Congressional leaders a letter in December calling for the measure to be passed, Milne says.

“Defense Secretary [Donald] Rumsfeld expressed his support of the bill and encouraged all members of Congress to support it,” Milne says. “I don’t know how many people it did actually influence, but it created a flurry of press … it gave us a burst of energy to really get people to sign on.”

But airman Roger Terry says the members of Congress who hesitated to support the bill shouldn’t have needed Rumsfeld to give them the green light. Terry was convicted in 1945 of assaulting a White officer while trying to integrate an Indiana officer’s club, a conviction that was overturned in 1995.

“I think that they are some [Congress members] who genuinely believe that we are entitled to it. And then there are others that say, ‘If everybody else is going along, I’d better go along.’ And if the secretary of defense wants it, he must have gotten the go-ahead from somebody in the party, because they’re not going to give Negroes anything.” Terry says.

The Congressional Gold Medal is the highest civilian award conferred by Congress. It was first presented to George Washington in 1776 and most recently presented to Rosa Parks and Nelson Mandela. The Tuskegee Airmen are the largest group ever to receive a collective award.

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