In one of many historical coups, the Tuskegee Airmen have been invited by Congress to attend Inaugural ceremonies on January 20th for President Barack Obama. The soldiers were the first blacks to pilot airplanes during WWII, and after some negligence, to be honored for their heroism. Although the facts are disputed, the Redtail troop claims to have lost none of its fighters during their campaigns over Germany.
President George W. Bush presented the Airmen with the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor in 2007, expressing regret over not doing so earlier. The Inaugural Committee selected the aging soldiers — some well into their eighties and nineties — in the hopes that they could pay homage to their service.
Thousands of people who participated in the fight for civil rights over several decades helped pave the way for Mr. Obama’s triumph. But the Tuskegee Airmen have a special place in history. Their bravery during the war — on behalf of a country that actively discriminated against them — helped persuade President Harry S. Truman to desegregate the military in 1948.
“The election of Barack Obama was like a culmination of a struggle that we were going through, wanting to be pilots,” said William M. Wheeler, 85, a retired Tuskegee combat fighter pilot who lives in Hempstead, N.Y. He tried to become a commercial pilot after the war but was offered a job cleaning planes instead.
Mr. Obama has acknowledged his debt to the airmen, issuing a statement in 2007, when they received the Congressional Gold Medal. It said in part: “My career in public service was made possible by the path heroes like the Tuskegee Airmen trail-blazed.”