Would you risk your life for a country that considered you a second-class citizen? Would you join a military that asked you to risk sacrificing your life but separated you from other soldiers because of the color of your skin? That is precisely what the Tuskegee Airmen did. They were brave, intelligent, African-American men and women who fought for the United States in World War II.
World War II lasted from 1939 to 1945. In 1940, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt agreed to allow African Americans to fly airplanes in the military. Before this, African Americans could only enlist in the Armed Forces as part of the ground troops. The first African American Airmen reported for duty in 1941. They began their training outside of Tuskegee, Alabama. The soldiers were completely separated by race and the two races could not communicate. About 450 African American pilots finished the training. These men were the original Tuskegee Airmen. There were to be many more Tuskegee Airmen in the years to come.
The Tuskegee Airmen had an amazing track record. They did not lose any of the bombers they were escorting. When the war was over in 1945, the Tuskegee Airmen were heroes. But when they returned to America, they were appalled to find out that they were still treated like second-class citizens. They faced the same segregation and discrimination as they had before they began their training. One thing did change, however. In 1948, President Harry S. Truman signed an executive order prohibiting segregation in the military.
Eventually, the Tuskegee Airmen were officially thanked for their amazing efforts in the war. Approximately 450 Tuskegee Airmen received 850 medals between 1943 and 1945. They also received 95 Distinguished Flying Crosses.
Meet Frederick Henry
One of the original Tuskegee Airmen lives in Detroit, Michigan. Frederick Henry was a Military Policeman and chef. Because he was from Mount Clemens, Michigan, which was in the North, he would often forget the segregation rules of the South. Once, Henry was on a bus alone with a white bus driver. Soon, after the two had talked for a while, a wave of other passengers came on the bus. A problem arose when some white passengers were still standing, which was against the rules. Henry was put off the bus, even though he was the first person to board the bus and had paid his fare.
The Tuskegee Airmen are often invited to functions across the country. Most of the remaining Tuskegee Airmen are between 80 and 90 years old. "Several Tuskegee Airmen have died. Many of my good friends have passed away," says Henry. It has been tough for him to attend these events and functions without his dear friends.
Henry radiates a strong sense of pride in being one of the original Tuskegee Airmen. But he didn't realize what a great honor it would become. "At the time that I went in, it was just great being in the military," he says. "I didn't know that after sixty years that we would be famous." President Barack Obama personally invited all of the original Tuskegee Airmen to his Inauguration. Henry attended the Inauguration and was surprised when people asked him for his autograph.
The Tuskegee Airmen and women opened doors for everyone. "When I was in the service, we only had one black general," remembers Henry. "Now, there are countless African American leaders in the military. The Tuskegee Airmen opened up the military for integration."
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