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Tuskegee Airmen Authors Sign Books, Shake Hands at Pentagon

By John J. Kruzel
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Feb. 21, 2008 – Before technology allowed U.S. aircraft to break the sound barrier, raw courage and bravery pushed the Tuskegee Airmen through the Army Air Corps color barrier.

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Retired Air Force Col. Charles E. McGee, a member of the all black 332nd Fighter Group, known as the Tuskegee Airmen, signs a copy of his biography during a Feb. 21, 2008, book signing at the Pentagon. Photo by John J. Kruzel

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Three intrepid airmen of the all-black 332nd Fighter Group appeared here today in the Pentagon concourse to sell and sign copies of their biographies. Within the first hour of the pilots’ arrival, servicemembers of all branches, ranks and races purchased nearly 150 copies of the tales that tell of the airmen’s World War II-era heroics.

Retired Air Force Col. Charles E. McGee said he and fellow Tuskegee Airmen participated in what a black newspaper deemed the “Double V” -- one victory against the Axis powers abroad and another victory against racial prejudice at home.

“Racism was pretty embedded in the Army policies, and they disbelieved our capability just because of the color of our skin,” McGee said, taking a break between signing books. “It did bring about a change when we finally got the opportunity to be graded on our abilities and not that type of policy.”

The coffin that holds such military prejudices received a final nail in March, when Congress unanimously voted to award the Congressional Gold Medal to the Tuskegee Airmen more than six decades after their dual triumphs. During the award ceremony inside the Capitol Rotunda, President Bush, saying he wanted to “offer a gesture to help atone for all the unreturned salutes and unforgivable indignities,” held his straightened right hand to his brow and saluted the airmen.

“That was really a sacred honor to have the president of the country recognize what the experience meant and the change it brought to the country,” said McGee, a veteran of World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War, one of the few pilots to fly in all three.

McGee’s fellow Tuskegee Airman, retired Air Force 2nd Lt. LeRoy Battle, said receiving the congressional award was like “walking with kings.” Battle said he wrote two autobiographical books -- “And the Beat Goes On” and “Easier Said” -- as a way to preserve the airmen’s legacy in a format that is more enduring than fleeting conversation.

“It’s my mission to inform the students of the glorious past,” he said. “And hopefully, they will connect the dots.”

An incredibly humbled Tuskegee Airman, retired Air Force 1st Lt. Curtis Christopher Robinson, said he wasn’t interested in fighting in World War II at first. “But when we went to war, I knew I had to get in,” he said. “And I did the best I could.”

Asked how he summoned his bravery, Robinson joked, “There really wasn’t that much courage, because I didn’t know what I was getting into.”

Monica Harris, who works on the Pentagon Renovation Project, purchased two copies of McGee’s biography, “Tuskegee Airman,” and two of Robinson’s biography, “A Pilot’s Journey.” She planned to give a copy of each book to Bishop David G. Evans, her pastor at the Bethany Baptist Church back home in Lindenwold, N.J.

“The pastor is a big fan of the Tuskegee Airmen,” she said. “He had a birthday party, and one of them was able to attend. He was thrilled -- like a kid in a candy store.”

Evans impressed the airmen’s legacy upon Harris, who said she couldn’t miss an opportunity to meet the pilots in person and collect their autographs. “That they were able to overcome so many obstacles and challenges of the day -- and live to tell about it -- is inspiring,” she added.

Pentagon staffer Air Force Maj. Brian Chappell, the nephew of Tuskegee Airman Roy Chappell, shook the hands of pilots who have motivated him since boyhood.

“I grew up hearing stories of the Tuskegee Airmen, and it was a tremendous inspiration hearing that all the way from a little boy up until high school and college. It really influenced my decision to join the military,” he said.

Chappell said the heroism of Tuskegee Airmen like his uncle, who died in September 2002, lives on through younger generations of airmen.

“The legacy, in addition to serving your country, also involves spreading the message, telling their story, so that their story doesn’t die with them.” he said. “I think it’s great that they’re able to tell their story, and that they’re writing books so that it’s not lost to history.”

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageMonica Harris poses with retired Air Force Col. Charles E. McGee, a member of the all black 332nd Fighter Group, known as the Tuskegee Airmen, during a Feb. 21, 2008, book signing at the Pentagon. Photo by John J. Kruzel  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageRetired Air Force 2nd Lt. LeRoy Battle, a member of the all black 332nd Fighter Group known as the Tuskegee Airmen, answers reporters' questions during a Feb. 21, 2008, book signing at the Pentagon. Photo by John J. Kruzel  
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