Effort under way to build Tuskegee Airmen memorial
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Among the region's World War II veterans, Harry E. Lanauze holds a major distinction.
"At 87, he is still practicing medicine in McKeesport," said Regis Bobonis Sr.
Mr. Bobonis recently gave a presentation for Black History Month at the McKeesport Regional History and Heritage Center.
"All the Real Heroes" addresses Pittsburgh-area residents, Dr. Lanauze among them, who joined the Tuskegee Airmen, the first group of black pilots, navigators and support staff in the U.S. military.
"Western Pennsylvania had the largest contingent of enlistees in the Tuskegee Airmen program," said Mr. Bobonis of Sewickley, who has spearheaded efforts to build a memorial dedicated to those who served.
Work on the project, which will be built in the Sewickley Cemetery, could begin as early as spring, he said.
The enlistees trained at Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama at a time when America's armed forces were segregated.
"Particularly for kids from the North, it was cultural shock going South for the first time," Mr. Bobonis explained. "They found out that Jim Crow laws prevailed over the Constitution of their country."
Nonetheless, many of the Tuskegee Airmen distinguished themselves in combat, helping to lead to the eventual integration of the military. And many returned home to embark on productive postwar lives because of that experience, Mr. Bobonis said.
A notable example is Homewood native and Westinghouse High School graduate Chauncey Eskridge (1917-88), who struck up a friendship with Martin Luther King Jr. and became his attorney. Mr. Eskridge was present April 4, 1968, when King was assassinated in Memphis, and he handled the civil rights leader's estate.
Three years later, Mr. Eskridge represented boxer Muhammad Ali when the appeal of his conviction on draft-evasion charges reached the U.S. Supreme Court.
"Here was a kid from Westinghouse who ended up before the highest court in the land and won," Mr. Bobonis said.
He also mentioned the one woman whose name will be among the 96 on the Tuskegee Airmen Memorial of the Greater Pittsburgh Region.
Rosa Alford, a Beaver County native, worked as an airplane mechanic while studying economics at Tuskegee Institute and later became a guidance counselor at New Brighton High School. She died in 2011, a few weeks shy of her 99th birthday.
In an interview last year, Dr. Lanauze, a fighter pilot during World War II, told the Post-Gazette about the bigotry he and the others faced while training.
"It was shocking, what happened to us at Tuskegee, what happened to us in Alabama," he said.
Blacks were not included in aviation training before a 1940 initiative by the federal Civil Aeronautics Authority.
"They didn't think we could fly," Dr. Lanauze said. "And if we did fly, they certainly didn't think we could fight the enemy."
History shows otherwise. In 2007, the Tuskegee Airmen, as a group, were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal. They gained further exposure with the release of "Red Tails," the 2012 feature film based on the airmen's experiences.
The memorial dedicated to the Western Pennsylvania residents among them is ready to be raised, according to Mr. Bobonis.
"We have the money to begin construction as soon as the weather breaks."
First Published February 21, 2013 5:46 am