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February 13, 2018 > Tuskegee Airmen, Inc. ? Preserving a legacy

Tuskegee Airmen, Inc. ? Preserving a legacy

By David R. Newman

In 1941, during World War II, the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) began a new training program in Tuskegee, Alabama. Dubbed the ?Tuskegee Military Experiment,? it was the first time in history that African-Americans flew for the U.S. military. Pilots, navigators, bombardiers, maintenance and support staff, instructors, and all the personnel who keep planes and pilots in the air ? these were the Tuskegee Airmen.

Thirty-one years later in Detroit, Michigan, a non-profit was founded called Tuskegee Airmen, Inc. (TAI), whose purpose is to keep that legacy alive. By providing scholarships and activities throughout the year, TAI hopes to motivate youth to become more involved with democracy, and inspire them to fly. Today, there are over 50 chapters in three regions, with the headquarters in Tuskegee.

David Cunningham, whose dad was a pilot for the Tuskegee Airmen, is President of the San Francisco Bay Area Chapter. ?Most people don?t know that there were three kinds of pilots in the Tuskegee Airmen. There were the bomber pilots, but the war ended before they were cleared to go. There were the fighter pilots of course, who flew in Europe. But there were also liaison pilots, who did forward observation for artillery. That?s what my dad did. He flew in the South Pacific.?

In all, 992 pilots were trained in Tuskegee from 1941 ? 1946. They studied at Tuskegee University, a private, historically black college. The program produced four fighter squadrons: the 99th, 100th, 301st, and 302nd, all assigned to the 332nd Fighter Group, supporting the advance of ground forces in Italy and escorting American B-17 and B-24 bombers over Nazi targets in central Europe. Others trained with the 477th Bombardment Group.

The SF Bay Area Chapter of TAI currently has 10 members, mostly descendants, although at one time there were 19 original airmen enrolled. They meet monthly at the Hayward Executive Airport to reminisce and talk about upcoming events, like the airport Open House, where they man a booth. Plans are also in the works to resurrect their Summer Flight Academy this summer (previously abandoned due to lack of funding), offering at risk youth up to 10 hours of free flight training. Says Cunningham, ?Flight training is intense. It will break you down and build you up again until and your confidence is off the charts.?

As with many TAI members, aviation runs in the family with Cunningham. As a child living in occupied Japan, his mom would often bring him to a nearby airfield where he would watch airplanes land and take off. Cunningham later joined the Navy, fought in Vietnam, and later used his skills in avionics to get a job in Silicon Valley. He just recently obtained his pilot?s license, fulfilling a lifelong dream. Now his daughter, who graduated from Tuskegee University, is a navigator in the Navy, flying P-3 Orions.

For many, that?s what TAI is all about ? preserving a family legacy. During World War II, black Americans in many U.S. states were still subject to the Jim Crow laws and the American military was racially segregated, as was much of the federal government. The Tuskegee Airmen not only fought battles in Europe and Japan, but here at home as well, in the form of discrimination, both within and outside the army. Several films and documentaries have been made about the Tuskegee Airmen in recent years, and some surviving fighters were presented with the Congressional Gold Medal by President George W. Bush in 2007.

The City of Hayward recently renamed a street near the airport ?Tuskegee Airmen Drive,? though not without some controversy. They mistakenly forgot ?Airmen? on the original sign, so that it read, ?Tuskegee Drive.? Says Cunningham, ?I was really upset with that. There?s a big difference between ?Tuskegee? and ?Tuskegee Airmen.? In the 1940s, Tuskegee was a very racist town.? There was also the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, sponsored by the Public Health Service between 1932 and 1972, in which syphilis was injected into African-American males; test subjects who contracted the disease were not informed or treated.

While the Tuskegee Airmen suffered losses during the war, they were truly an elite bunch. After the war, in 1949, the USAAF, now the Air Force, held the first annual aerial gunnery competition in Nevada (the original Top Gun). The winners ? The Tuskegee Airmen, represented by their top four pilots. For Cunningham and others, it is a big point of pride. ?As I?ve been picking up knowledge of what my dad did, I?ve learned a lot about the Tuskegee Airmen.?

The airfield where the airmen trained is now honored as the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site.

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