WASHINGTON -- The Tuskegee Airmen were called racist and hurtful names as they became the nation's first African-American military pilots during World War II.
Yesterday, they were called heroes.
About 300 airmen, widows and relatives sat proudly in the Capitol Rotunda as the Tuskegee Airmen received the Congressional Gold Medal -- the nation's highest civilian honor -- and a heartfelt salute from their commander in chief.
The award is recognition of the airmen's role in fighting two wars: one against America's enemies abroad and another against the evils of ignorance and racial intolerance at home.
"The Tuskegee Airmen helped win a war, and you helped change our nation," President Bush said. "And the medal that we confer today means that we're doing a small part to ensure that your story will be told and honored for generations to come."
But Mr. Bush said the award wasn't enough to atone for the "unforgivable indignities" and the unreturned salutes the airmen endured from white servicemen. The president stood ramrod straight, put his hand to his head and told them: "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."
Several airmen, some of whom entered the Rotunda with the aid of canes or wheelchairs, stood and returned the salute.
The airmen join the ranks of George Washington, Rosa Parks, Jonas Salk, Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela, Charles Lindbergh and the Little Rock Nine as Congressional Gold Medal recipients.
Another recipient, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, attended yesterday's ceremony and thanked the airmen. "You caused America to look in the mirror of its soul, and you showed America that there was nothing a black person couldn't do," he said.
"We are so overjoyed at the reception of the Congressional Gold Medal," Roscoe Brown, an airman from New York City, said on behalf of the group. "Because of our great record and our persistence, we inspired revolutionary reform in the armed forces that led to integration in the armed forces ... and provided a symbol to America that all people can contribute to this country and be treated fairly."
The Army Air Corps began training African Americans to become pilots at Alabama's Tuskegee University in 1941, under orders of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Army officials were skeptical of the skills of African Americans, largely basing their assumptions on a 1925 military study which concluded that African Americans lacked the courage and technical aptitude to be counted on in combat.
Nearly 1,000 African Americans earned their pilot's wings in the Tuskegee program between 1942 and 1946. They flew more than 15,000 sorties over North Africa and Europe during World War II, destroyed more than 250 enemy aircraft on the ground and 150 in the air and were so proficient at protecting U.S. and Allied bomber planes that squadrons requested that the pilots escort for them.
Though their exploits were well chronicled by the African-American press at the time, the Tuskegee Airmen's contributions weren't widely known. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., and Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., pushed legislation through the House and Senate to give the airmen the medal.
The airmen were greeted as heroes as they arrived at the Capitol for the ceremony. Tourists applauded and stopped the fliers, who were sporting red or blue jackets, to pose for pictures with them.
"It's wonderful, and I do mean wonderful," said Clayo Rice, an 83-year-old airman from Wilmington, Del. "I have nothing sarcastic to say about the time, how long this took or anything."
Few of the airmen were able to parlay their wartime flying into postwar work because commercial airlines wouldn't hire African Americans for the cockpit. Several African-American airline pilots attended the ceremony to pay their respects to the men.
United Airlines pilot George Bryce Watson III beamed as he watched his grandfather, George Watson Sr., and the other Tuskegee Airmen finally receive their due from the government they served.
"It's because of these gentlemen that I am allowed to wear the uniform I have today," said Mr. Watson, who flies Boeing 767 jets for United.