High-flying Pride: Weekend will honor Tuskeegee Airmen

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Local officials and the community will gather Friday at Allegheny County Airport to pay tribute to nearly 100 local men and one woman who joined the famed Tuskegee Airmen unit during World War II.

It is part of a three-day celebration of the 70th anniversary of the first graduating class to train at Tuskegee, Ala., in 1942.

During World War II, black and white soldiers were segregated, and before 1940, black servicemen were not allowed to become pilots. This was the first group of black pilots, and it is believed their success led to the military's integration.

Local historians say that Western Pennsylvania, as a region, contributed the largest contingent of enlistees to the famed squadron.

Harry Lanauze, 86, of McKeesport, was one of those Tuskegee Army Airforce pilots, and is an honorary co-chairman of the event.

He flew an escort Mustang bomber over Italy in 1945. Four or five individual Tuskegee pilots in Mustangs would escort a B-25 bomber on a mission, with an eight-man crew, he said.

Dr. Lanauze doesn't like to recall those air battles.

"I shot at Germans," he said, adding he has blocked out the combat missions, and doesn't like to talk about them, even with his family.

He was living in Washington, D.C., when he was drafted at 18 right out of high school, and he was accepted into the Tuskegee program to train to be a pilot. After the war, he went to medical school in Tennessee, and came to Pittsburgh to do his residency. He has been a general practitioner in McKeesport ever since.

He is proud that the airmen unit contributed to the integration of blacks in the United States, but says it was a painfully slow process.

First move to Civil Rights

He said blacks were treated terribly when they first went into the Army.

"But when the other pilots saw what we did to protect them with our escorts, then they were buddy-buddy. We had earned their respect," he said.

But that respect ended with the war.

"There was no recognition for us after the war," he said. "I couldn't get a job. I wanted to go into the commercial airline industry, but everyone said, 'We don't hire blacks.' "

He had trained in celestial navigation, and wanted to continue in that field. When he couldn't, he used the GI Bill to attend college and medical school.

"It has taken 50 or 60 years for America to recognize the Tuskegee Airmen," he notes.

After many years, filmmaker George Lucas finally got the movie, "Red Tails," produced last year. The name of the film came from the airmen's practice of painting the tails of their planes red.

Tomorrow, Dr. Lanauze may get into a two-seater Mustang, similar to the one he flew over Italy, but he doesn't plan to go up in the plane.

Attorney Wendell Freeland, 87, of Shadyside, is a co-chairman of the celebration. He was among the roughly 900 black pilots who trained to become a Tuskegee airman, but the war ended in 1945 before he could see combat. Originally from Baltimore, he came to Pittsburgh after law school.

He experienced discrimination, however, and wants young people to understand the struggles that blacks of his generation went through in those days to achieve acceptance.

Along with 100 other black airmen training in the state of Indiana, he was arrested for going into the White Officers Club.

He is proud that the Tuskegee Airmen began the long process of integration in this country.

"This was the beginning of the civil rights movement," he said.

"I think it was the experience of the Tuskegee Airmen, and their success, that convinced President [Harry] Truman to desegregate the armed services in 1945," he said.

"This recognition is long overdue," he said, "people need to see that Negroes were involved in World War II, and that it wasn't just Tom Hanks in 'Saving Private Ryan.' "

"Unfortunately, even though the changes have been tremendous," said Mr. Freeland, "I think we've seen a resurgence of discrimination and bigotry - that was evident in the presidential campaign, when some wouldn't vote for President Obama because he is black."

Weekend of recognition

The free air show and special recognition for the Tuskegee Airmen at the Allegheny County Airport in West Mifflin is sponsored by the Daniel Matthews Historical Society of Sewickley, a group dedicated to promoting the history of local African Americans.

Events will take place daily from noon until 8 p.m.

Terry Bradford is president of the historical society, and is one of the main organizers of the celebration.

"This has become a passion of mine," said Ms. Bradford, who works for Verizon. The group has been active in publicizing the local Tuskegee Airmen, and had a float in a parade in Beaver County last year.

"I can't tell you how many people have come up to me and said, 'My grandfather said those pilots saved his life.' It makes me very proud to be doing this."

A nonprofit group that is raising money for a memorial to the airmen in Sewickley Cemetery will have a booth at the weekend celebrationl.

A rare P-51C Mustang plane the Tuskegee pilots flew against the Nazis will be on hand for public flights.

An opening ceremony at 4 p.m. Friday will be attended by Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, and Chris Moore from WQED will be the master of ceremonies. He had a program on the Tuskegee Airmen several years ago.

A 50-foot trailer that contains a theater will feature a movie about the World War II fly-boys, called "Rise Above."

The celebration includes a drum and bugle corps, live entertainment, car and motorcycle cruises, vendors and a health fair featuring the Highmark Direct Mobile Unit.

Local men filled ranks

"The Pittsburgh Courier had advertised that they were looking for pilots, that's how local men first heard about the Tuskegee program," said Ms. Bradford. "Most of these men came from the middle class, so many of them had already graduated from college when they went for training, and were 22 or 24."

The unit included bombardiers, navigators and flight line support personnel.

Regis Bobonis Sr., 85, of Sewickley, began in 2005 investigating the number of African-American enlistees from this region.

"I found that Western Pennsylvania made up the largest contingent," he said. "There were 85 people from Western Pennsylvania, from Erie to just over the West Virginia line, who enlisted to become pilots, navigators, bombardiers and flight technicians," said Mr. Bobonis.

"And through the photos of Teenie Harris, and the Carnegie Art Museum, we've identified 10 more," he said. "Mr. Harris took pictures of them in his studio, and they have Tuskegee patches on their uniforms, and some have wings."

Four Pittsburgh area men in the Tuskegee unit died while in the service - two in combat and two in training accidents.

Mr. Bobonis said Lt. Elmer Taylor, 23, from the Hill District, was killed on a bomber escort mission in Europe, as was Carl Woods, 21, from Mars, who was lost in combat over Italy.

James Wright, 23, from Beltzhoover, and Robert Johnson, 17, a Schenley High School graduate, were killed in combat training accidents in the United States.

Mr. Bobonis said 450 Tuskegee pilots and flight personnel landed in Casablanca, Morocco, in April 1943, as the Army Air Force opened a second front for Allied bombings out of North Africa to retake Italy and Sicily from the Axis powers.

He said 15 of the Tuskegee Airmen who landed in Morocco were from Western Pennsylvania.

Many of the Tuskegee pilots flew escort planes that accompanied bombers over Italy and Germany.

"A group of amateur historians found that seven men from Sewickley enlisted, and five of them were pilots overseas, from the town of just 6,000 people, which is pretty amazing," he said.

He found that 17 enlistees were from the Hill District, 14 from Homewood, six from Beltzhoover and four from the North Side. He said several received the Distinguished Flying Cross.

"We had two kinds of distinguished pilots," he said. "One group distinguished themselves in combat, and the other after they returned."

Most of the local Tuskegee airmen who served in World War II have died.

One of the most distinguished was Lt. Chauncey Eskridge, a graduate of Westinghouse High School. He flew in combat in the invasion of Italy, and after the war graduated from law school, and became Martin Luther King's personal attorney. In 1971, he presented oral arguments before the Supreme Court when it overturned the 1967 draft evasion conviction of former boxing champ Muhammad Ali. He later became an associate judge of the Cook County Circuit Court in Illinois and died in 1988.

Sgt. Richard Dowdy also rose to national prominence. He graduated from Peabody High School and joined the 477th Bomber Group. After the war, he earned a master's degree in economics, and attended Yale Law School. He joined the staff of David Rockefeller as a socio-economic planner for urban and suburban regions.

Rosa Alford, of Beaver County, was the lone female enlistee from the area. She was a flightline mechanic in the Tuskegee program, and retired as a counselor from New Brighton High School in Beaver County.

Memorial funds being raised

Mr. Bubonis is vice chairman of the historical group and chairman of the nonprofit project to build a memorial in the Sewickley Cemetery to honor the Tuskegee Airmen. He said ground has already been broken at the site and construction will begin shortly.

The monument group received a $100,000 grant from Allegheny County and recently received a $10,000 grant from the Tony Dungy Family Foundation. Both Mr. Dungy and Franco Harris are involved in the campaign, which he estimated needs another $100,000 to complete the memorial.

It will include a marker of white granite flanked by two black granite towers with the names of the local airmen.

The group hopes to dedicate the monument in 2013.

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Debra Duncan, freelance writer: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com. First Published May 31, 2012 4:00 AM


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