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ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

I'm Melissa Block.

And next we're going to spend some time with a special group of World War II veterans. Last month, members of the Tuskegee Airmen, the nation's first black fighter pilots, came together for what could very well be their last reunion. They met in Florida, and NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates was there.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES: They come in one by one or in small groups. Some have the brisk pace and erect posture that speaks of their military history. Others walk a little more slowly. Several have younger family members hovering protectively nearby, and a few roll by or are pushed in wheelchairs. Many haven't seen each other for seven decades.

Unidentified Man #1: Nice to see you.

GRIGSBY BATES: They're all former pilots of the 332nd Fighter Group, black men who fought to be allowed to fight in the air in World War II.

Lieutenant Colonel Harry Stewart, trim and crisp, came from Michigan and says all these men made a special effort to get here.

HARRY STEWART: There's 355 pilots were sent overseas. Of that 355, only 46 are living today. Their ages vary anywhere from 86 to 96.

GRIGSBY BATES: In other words, there's not a lot of time left, which is why they've come tonight.

STEWART: Leo Gray, one of our members, thought that it would be nice if we could go ahead and call upon those 46 that are living now to come down to Orlando, which we have done, and just join maybe one more time for our last hurrah.

GRIGSBY BATES: About a dozen of them were able to make it, and they came in good spirits with lots of stories.

Alexander Jefferson, a small man with a precise silver moustache, told about being gunned out of the sky during a mission.

ALEXANDER JEFFERSON: I was shot down August 12th, 1944, strafing radar stations. And I was knocked out. So I spent nine months in Germany as a prisoner of war.

GRIGSBY BATES: How'd the Germans treat you?

JEFFERSON: As an officer and a gentleman: No beatings, no torture because of the Geneva Convention.

GRIGSBY BATES: Nearby sits Hiram Mann, a chipper man who was nicknamed Gremlin by his colleagues. Mann remembers how he was saved by a twist of fate. He flew 48 missions during the war, but the base flight surgeon wouldn't clear him and some of his squadron mates to go back so soon. So someone else was tapped to fly Boss Lady, the plane he'd named after his wife. Mann saw the change on the duty roster

HIRAM MANN: Well, they scratched out my name in pencil, his name above mine to fly in my place. He said: They've got me scheduled to fly your plane again. Is that OK? Well, what are you supposed to say, no, you can't do it? You know, yeah, it's OK.

GRIGSBY BATES: Not so OK for the pilot: Boss Lady never returned.

MANN: I think about it. I say: There but for the grace of God go I. But then I may not have been in the exact spot in the air when he was shot down.

GRIGSBY BATES: During World War II, a number of black men volunteered to become pilots, but the segregated military refused their offer. A 1925 report by the Army War College claimed blacks weren't intelligent or coordinated enough to fly complicated machinery. It also questioned their courage.

It took the outrage of the black press and a lawsuit that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court before an experimental program that would train black pilots was established. A vintage Air Force newsreel tells the story

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

Unidentified Man #2: In July of 1941, five young Negroes made aviation history at Tuskegee, Alabama. These five young men were the first of their race to graduate under the Army Air Force's newly organized plan for training Negro pilots.

GRIGSBY BATES: Nearly 1,000 pilots were trained, and about a third of them were posted to Europe.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLANE)

GRIGSBY BATES: The Germans called them Schwartze Vogelmenschen, or Black Birdmen, and they said that with great respect and considerable apprehension. The Allies called the pilots Red Tail Angels for their protection and for the signature color on their planes' tails.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) For we are heroes of the night. (Unintelligible) flight.

GRIGSBY BATES: This meeting in Orlando was chosen to coincide with the 66th anniversary of the mission to Berlin, the longest round-trip mission undertaken by the 15th Air Force during World War II. The goal: Take off from Ramitelli, Italy, escort bombers to Berlin, destroy the Daimler/Benz tank works there and return, 1,600 miles nonstop. Mission accomplished.

They'd served their country well, but when the Red Tails returned, Alex Jefferson says it was business as usual.

JEFFERSON: Coming back on the boat, got to New York Harbor and the flags waving, Statue of Liberty, walked down the gang plank. A little white soldier at the bottom says: Whites to the right, niggers to the left, coming back home. You talk about startling. God.

GRIGSBY BATES: Colonel George Hardy says the Red Tails' performance made a lasting impression when the Air Force became a separate branch of the service after the war. Hardy says based on its experience with the Red Tail pilots, the Air Force commissioned a study on the feasibility of integration in November, 1947.

GEORGE HARDY: And then in April of '48, the Air Force announced they were going to integrate. That was before President Truman signed that executive order.

GRIGSBY BATES: The order that eventually would integrate all branches of the service.

Brigadier General Stayce Harris counts herself as a direct beneficiary of the Red Tails' efforts. Harris is the first African-American woman to command an Air Force flight unit. She's now mobilization reserve assistant to the commander of AFRICOM, the U.S. Africa Command.

STAYCE HARRIS: What they did, how much it meant to not just blacks in the service but to everyone in the military as far as desegregation, as far as paving the way, as far as demonstrating that blacks could fly, as far as just being American heroes, to this day is still overwhelming to me.

GRIGSBY BATES: You look like it still sends you shivers.

HARRIS: It does.

GRIGSBY BATES: Lieutenant Colonel Leo Gray, the event's organizer, says he and his fellow pilots didn't consider themselves heroes.

LEO GRAY: We thought we were just doing what we had to do at the time, and we had no idea we were going to have the impact that it did.

GRIGSBY BATES: Even if for years that impact was persistently ignored outside the black community. In 2007, President George W. Bush invited all surviving Tuskegee Airmen - pilots, ground crew, technicians - to Washington to receive the Congressional Gold Medal.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)

GEORGE W: I would like to offer a gesture to help atone for all the unreturned salutes and unforgivable indignities. And so 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

GRIGSBY BATES: They're getting used to the accolades. At the Red Tail pilots' reunion in Orlando, Navy personnel at a conference in the same hotel stood in long lines to have their picture taken with this group of proud, elderly men. Captain Art Pruitt explained why.

ART PRUITT: These gentlemen literally changed the course of history and broke down one of the hugest barriers in the military, the race barrier, the color barrier. They are the heroes of our past generations. And being able to honor them like this is truly a privilege for a guy in uniform still.

GRIGSBY BATES: Then he turned back one last time to gaze at the men who flew into American history.

Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.

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