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With Congressional Gold Medal, Debt to Tuskegee Airmen ‘Paid in Full’

In a striking show of unity amid partisan rancor over the Iraq war and U.S. Attorney firings, President Bush yesterday led a bipartisan delegation of House and Senate leaders to present a group of surviving Tuskegee Airmen with the Congressional Gold Medal.

Before a standing-room-only crowd in the Capitol Rotunda, Bush remarked that instead of seeing only statues of heroic Americans in that chamber, he was pleased to see the real thing.

“As I walked into the Rotunda, a place that occasionally I get invited up here and I walk into, I was impressed by the fact that I wasn’t amongst heroes who were statues. I was impressed that I was amongst heroes who still live. I thank you for the honor you have brought to our country. And the medal you’re about to receive means our country honors you, and rightly so.”

Bush spoke about being raised by a World War II aviator, former President George H. W. Bush, who did not have to suffer the many indignities of fighting and dying for a country that treated him like a second-class citizen. However, Bush drew an enthusiastic standing ovation from the Airmen and their supporters after stepping back and offering a crisp military salute.

“I would like to offer a gesture to help atone for all the unreturned salutes and unforgivable indignities. And so, 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,” Bush said.

Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., was the principal House sponsor of the Gold Medal bill, which was first introduced in the Senate in February 2005 by Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich. Though the bill languished in Congress until former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld lent his public support, it swept through both houses of Congress unanimously and was signed by Bush last year.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., also praised the long-unrecognized sacrifice of the Tuskegee Airmen in an eloquent speech that elicited strong applause.

“Sixty years after your deeds of heroism, this recognition is long overdue. … Congratulations on this well-deserved, if overdue honor. Thank you for serving our country, then and now. And thank you for leaving it better than you found it,” McConnell said.

Tuskegee Airman Lee Archer, who achieved “Ace” status by being credited with shooting down five enemy planes during WWII, has said in many past interviews that all of the overdue accolades he and his Airmen comrades have received recently are “late payment,” coming after 60-odd years of unjust ignominy.

However, as he unexpectedly moved towards the microphone in the packed Rotunda to speak, Archer surveyed the scene, paused, and said, “Paid in full.”

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 Pres. Harry S. Truman to order the desegregation of the U.S. armed forces in 1948.

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.

–David Pluvoise


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