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A visit with history-making men

Tech. Sgt. Carla Barber poses with Tuskegee Airmen Mr. Buford A. Johnson, center, and retired Lt. Col. James H. Harvey III, at the 35th Annual Tuskegee Airmen Convention last August in Arizona.

Tech. Sgt. Carla Barber poses with Tuskegee Airmen Mr. Buford A. Johnson, center, and retired Lt. Col. James H. Harvey III, at the 35th Annual Tuskegee Airmen Convention last August in Arizona.

Tinker AFB, Okla. -- I was given the opportunity to attend the 35th Annual Tuskegee Airmen Convention in August of 2006 in Phoenix, Arizona. In honor of black history month, I wanted to share my experience with all of you.

The time I spent there was well worth the trip. Not only did I shake hands and take photographs with several of the original members, I also managed to obtain some of their autographs. I had the opportunity to visit, one-on-one, with some of the original Tuskegee Airmen, listening to them tell their stories of heroism and service in the military.

Some of the members I met personally were Alex Jefferson, an original member of the 332nd Fighter Group and 301st Fighter Squadron who spent nine months as a POW in
Germany. He said that the time he spent as a POW, he was treated better than he was as a free man in the United States.

Another member I met was James H. Harvey III, who was a member of the 99th Fighter Squadron and the 1st Top Gun. My all-time favorite Tuskegee Airmen member is none other than Mr. Buford Johnson.

Mr. Johnson became a Tuskegee Airman in 1944. He was the first Top Gun Crew Chief of the P-47 with the 99th Fighter Squadron. He has the privilege of having a Tuskegee Airmen Chapter named after him. There were others that I met and spoke to briefly. They were all so eager to share their stories to whoever would listen. They are truly a great group of men.

I also attended the dedication ceremony of the 944th Tuskegee Airmen Memorial Park at Luke Air Force Base, as well as the Lonely Eagle Ceremony.

The history of the Tuskegee Airmen details the rigid system of racial segregation that prevailed in the United States during World War II; nearly 1,000 black military pilots were trained at an isolated airfield near Tuskegee, Alabama, and the Tuskegee Institute. Four hundred and fifty black fighter pilots under the command of Col. Benjamin O. Davis Jr. fought in the aerial war over North Africa, Sicily and Europe, flying in successions P-40,
P-39, P-47 and P-51 type aircraft. These gallant men flew 15,553 sorties and 1,578 missions with the 12th Tactical Air Force and the 15th Strategic Air Force.

These Airmen were also known as "Schwartze Vogelmenshen" (black birdmen) by German pilots who both feared and respected them. White American bomber crew reverently referred to them as the "Black Red Tail Angels" because of the red paint on their tail assemblies and because of their reputation for not losing bombers to enemy fighters as they provided fighter escort to bombing missions over strategic targets in Europe. The 99th Fighter Squadron joined three other black squadrons: the 100th, the 301st, and the 302nd. These four squadrons designated as the 332nd Fighter Group, comprised the largest fighter unit in the 15th Air Force.

Tuskegee Airmen exist primarily to motivate and inspire young Americans to become participants in our Nation's Society and its democratic process.