In the early 1970s, very few Americans knew about the role served by a segregated group of black Army Air Corps pilots in World War II about 30 years earlier. Other than stories published in black-owned newspapers, very little exposure was given to the crews who trained out of the Tuskegee air field in Alabama and eventually played a huge role in the war's southern European air campaigns.
The men banded together and formed more than 50 chapters of the nonprofit Tuskegee Airmen, Inc. to share their history and encourage youth to pursue their dreams of flying through its Summer Flight Academy/Ace Camps.
Today, so much more is widely known about America's black pioneers of air combat. President Barack Obama invited all living Tuskegee Airmen to his 2008 inauguration. History books include chapters about the airmen and countless books have been written. Movies such George Lucas' new Red Tails and a 1995 made-for-TV film titled Tuskegee Airmen have renewed the interest in the Tuskegee experience in aviation history and the discrimination these pilots faced both while serving and once they got home.
On Saturday, two Tuskegee Airmen from San Francisco took part in a special event at Novato's Gnoss Field. Even though soggy weather threatened Saturday's event, organized by the Gnoss Field Community Association, a couple hundred people convened at the airport's to enjoy the breakfast, guest speakers and fly-overs of historic aircraft.
Lt. LeRoy Gilead and Capt. Les Williams were honored as two of the original 450 Tuskegee Airmen. Gilead, who is now in his 90s, riveted the crowd of veterans, aviation buffs and aspiring pilots with his story. “You are either a victim or a beneficiary of your environment,” he said.
Gilead grew up in New York, attended one of the city's most prestigious high schools and went on to graduate from college. He told the audience he was not aware of the segregation he would encounter in his moves around the country.
As a young man, Gilead dreamed of becoming a pilot during a time when the best job a black man could hope for was a Pullman porter on a train, he recalled. But he had high aspirations. When he arrived at his first job at the Maxwell air base in Alabama, he was denied skills training and put to work as a mechanic because of the color of his skin.
It was not until he was moved to Tuskegee that he was given the opportunity to train and fly thanks to pressure from the influential black press. Several years later, Eleanor Roosevelt wanted to see if these men in Tuskegee could fly. After her one-hour flight in 1941 with Chief Charles Alfred Anderson, she deemed them “flight-ready,” pushing the air corps to place the men on active duty overseas.
Gilead achieved his goal, becoming a mechanic, pilot and then navigator. But he reminded the audience that discrimination in the military still exists and emphasized the difficulties now faced by women in service.
He proved dreams can come true — and you can live out those dreams well into your 90s — when he donned a flight suit and headed out in a plane to fly over Gnoss Field.
Many who took part in the event Saturday savored the chance to learn some first-hand history. So many combat veterans compartmentalize their memories and choose not to talk about them, often because they do not want to be made out as a hero. But history can be lost that way; generations will miss out on a full appreciation of real-life events. The appearances of Gilead and Williams will be rememebered as a gift to fans of history, aviation and civil rights.
Click here to see the 's coverage of this event.