Storied World War II Vets Share Insights With Today's Troops
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Nov. 10, 2005 Former Tuskegee Airmen -- pioneers who broke through racial prejudice to become the first black U.S. military pilots during World War II -- have solid words of advice and encouragement for today's military members.
Tuskegee Airman retired Col. Porcher L. Taylor Jr. pulls out a business card to give to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld in the Pentagon on Nov. 10. Taylor and some of his fellow airmen were at the Pentagon to receive briefings on the state of the Air Force and an update on global operations and to have lunch with Rumsfeld. Photo by Master Sgt. James M. Bowman, USAF
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
"Don't let anyone tell you what you can't do," said retired Air Force Master Sgt. Ezra Hill Sr., of Hampton, Va. "We proved that you can do it."
Hill said the lessons he learned as one of the original Tuskegee Airmen, who battled segregation and prejudice on the ground and enemy forces in the air, apply equally to today's servicemembers fighting the war on terror.
"President Bush has a plan, and that plan can be accomplished by our military," said Hill, a veteran who served for 20 years.
Hill was among several dozen Tuskegee Airmen who visited the Pentagon today to meet with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other Defense Department leaders. On Nov. 11, Veterans Day, the group will visit the White House.
The veterans, most now in their 80s, made history during World War II when they entered an Army Air Forces program at Alabama's Tuskegee Institute and nearby Tuskegee Army Airfield to train as pilots, navigators, bombardiers and supporting ground crews. By the war's end, almost 1,000 men had graduated from pilot training at Tuskegee, and almost half of them went on to combat assignments overseas. Collectively, they earned more than 744 Air Medals, more than 100 Flying Crosses, 14 Bronze Star Medals, eight Purple Hearts, one Silver Star and a Legion of Merit.
Retired Army Lt. Col. Howard Baugh, 85, who lives just outside Richmond, Va., said the attributes that enabled the Tuskegee Airmen to succeed, both on the ground and in the air, still apply to today's men and women in uniform.
"You have to focus on what you're trained to do, support other people in your organization, rely on each other and work as a team," he said.
That's particularly important during combat, said Baugh, who remembers the terror of watching enemy tracers soar past his single-engine aircraft and having to make radical maneuvers to avoid being hit.
"You have to believe in yourself and your leaders," agreed LeRoy A. Battle, an 83-year-old former bombardier who was a second lieutenant with the Tuskegee Airmen. "What we did, and what (today's troops) have to do, is stay focused, stick to it and get it done."
Retired Army Master Sgt. Robert Peeples said serving in the military when racism was rampant instilled in him a drive to always outperform those who doubted his abilities. "It gave me the desire to be better than anybody and to strive to be the honor student at every school I attended," he said.
The drive to excel helped Peeples, not just in his military career, but in his life overall, he said, and offers a valuable lesson for today's troops.
Like many military members serving today, Retired Maj. Humphrey Patton lost many friends in combat while serving with the Tuskegee Airmen and during his 36 years of military service.
"You can't dwell on the losses," said Patton, age 79. "You have to concentrate on the mission and forget about yourself. Concentrate on now, and don't worry about the future."
Former Army Sgt. Cicero Satterfield, who served as an assistant crew chief with the Tuskegee Airmen after the United States entered World War II in 1942, said he's proud of the foundation he and his fellow Tuskegee Airmen laid for today's servicemembers.
"The military has changed (from the days when it was plagued by discrimination and prejudice)," Satterfield said. "Now, depending on your ability to adapt and your training, you can reach for the sky and soar among the stars."