I am delighted to join you this evening. I came to appreciate the impressive contribution that the Tuskegee Airmen made to [the] Allied victory in World War II early-on in my assignment teaching history at the Air Force Academy. But I must confess that I really did not have a full appreciation of the true impact of the Tuskegee Airmen on our Air Force.
This convention reflects the extent of that impact. Assisting in running this year s convention are numerous active duty members of today's Air Force -- enlisted, NCOs and officers -- whose opportunity to serve was made possible by this group.
I would like to have all our active duty people stand -- the people of today's Air Force, please stand.
These men and women are the beneficiaries of all the trials and tribulations you went through -- of your courage, your perseverance, your mentoring and your role modeling.
In my speech, I will talk about individual victories, about valor, about the legacy and the heritage of the Tuskegee Airmen. But in the end, the men and the women of the Tuskegee experience broke forever the myths that allowed segregation, inequity and injustice to exist with a thin veil of legitimacy.
Not only did you come to the defense of your country, you elected to serve in the most sophisticated and technically advanced service of America s military establishment. You took to wings. You engaged one of the most formidable military establishments in the world -- the Luftwaffe, the dreaded Luftwaffe that paved the way for the German war machine in 1938, 1939 and 1940.
So when you engaged this force in combat and came away victorious, you carried not only your own pride and your personal accomplishments, but also the idea that never again would anybody deny a man or woman the opportunity to serve our country in any capacity because of the color of their skin.
So it is a great thrill for me to be here in the presence of so many American heroes -- stout-hearted individuals who made history at Tuskegee Field and in the war-torn skies over Europe. Over the past few months, I've taken part in a variety of events commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Allied victory in World War II, but none more meaningful than this banquet tonight.
As those from the East Coast chapter will tell you, I'm a red jacket-holding, dues-paying member of the Tuskegee Airmen. I'm extremely proud to count myself among your number. Your tremendous record in the face of adversity stands as a shining example for our airmen and officers of today, and that's why I asked them to stand.
We look back with pride on your outstanding accomplishments -- your skill in combat, your strength of character in the face of prejudice and racism. Despite the bigotry, you would not be denied the opportunity to serve your country in desperate times. Service before self is a key concept of our modern-day Air Force. Service before self was more than just a phrase to the Tuskegee Airmen. It was a way of life. We thank you for this very rich heritage that you provided our United States Air Force.
I want to express a very special thanks to Mr. Robert Williams, a member of the Red Tails in World War II, who documented the achievements of the Tuskegee Airmen in a wonderful film that will air on HBO [Home Box Office] on Aug. 26. I apologize for not being here for the premiere, but I think it will become one of those films that helps complete the history and heritage of our Air Force.
As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of victory in World War II, it's quite appropriate that your legacy is a key element of your convention s theme -- "We have already made history; now let's build a better world."
In my comments tonight, I'd like to address both aspects of that theme, if I could. I'll describe some highlights of your combat record, and then I would like to be so bold as to perhaps identify some areas where you can help us build a better Air Force.
When I reflect on the Tuskegee Airmen, I'm truly impressed by what you were able to accomplish under less-than-ideal conditions. Initially flying the somewhat-less-capable P-40s and P-39s, and always striving to overcome the ill-conceived prejudices against your fighting ability, you persevered and you made history in the process.
In June of 1943, you first engaged the Luftwaffe over the island of Pantelleria. You gave a good accounting of yourself with individuals like Lt. Col. Chuck Dryden leading the way, much as he led the efforts to organize this convention as its chairman.
In early 1944, the 99th Fighter Squadron came into its own with Maj. Spanky Roberts in command and gallant aviators such as Spann Watson eagerly engaging the enemy over the Mediterranean. As you know, Spann was in the original Tuskegee Airmen class, and he's in the audience tonight.
While providing close air support to the Allied forces at Anzio on Jan. 27, 15 Tuskegee Airmen engaged a larger number of the far superior German FW-190s, and they shot down six while damaging four others. That same afternoon, the Tuskegee Airmen destroyed three more enemy aircraft.
On Jan. 28, the 99th shot down four aircraft, and then they added four more by Feb. 10. So these victories quickly began to prove to people with unbiased eyes that the Tuskegee Airmen could fly and fight with the best of them.
During this period, then-Col. Benny Davis established the 332nd Fighter Group in southern Italy. I was honored and had the pleasure of having lunch with Gen. Davis on Thursday of this past week. We had a group of retired general officers together in Washington, where we were able to talk about our Air Force, and I was honored to have him join us.
In the summer of 1944, the 99th joined the 332nd while it was transitioning into the P-47 "Jug," and then the top-of-the-line P-51 Mustang.
Yesterday, Miss Jane and I stood on the flight deck of the carrier Intrepid in New York City. I saw the American Freedom Flight and two P-51s come down the Hudson River painted with D-Day invasion stripes. It was both with a feeling of pride and yet more than that -- a feeling of admiration -- that I watched their flight, because the P-51 was a top-of-the-line fighter. It looks so frail, yet it was so lethal in the hands of well-trained, motivated and dedicated people such as yourselves.
But when you were equipped with that P-51, you then began to focus on this bomber escort mission. In June of 1944, the Tuskegee Airmen scored kills while flying the first of a series of 200 bomber escort missions over which you became known as the Red Tail Devils. On this initial mission, Col. Davis led 39 airmen in escorting B-24s to Munich, Germany. You were attacked en route by more than 100 German fighters, and despite fighting outnumbered, the Red Tails destroyed five Me-109s and damaged a sixth.
On June 25, 1944, Capt. Joe Elsbury led the Tuskegee Airmen in sinking a German destroyer in the Gulf of Venice -- sinking it with machine gun fire, a rare feat. You're looking at a guy standing up here who got shot down in Vietnam trying to destroy a gun site with machine gun fire. So I know that a well-armed ship can give far better than it can take. It took a great amount of courage for you to press the attack in the face of all that. Later, Joe Elsbury would shoot down three German fighters on a single mission.
On July 18, Capt. Lee Rayford led 66 P-51s on a bomber escort mission to southern Germany. He loitered at the rendezvous point waiting for the late bombers, knowing full well that if the Tuskegee Airmen departed and returned to base, they could expect that the bombers would suffer high losses if they attacked without their fighter escort. Though outnumbered, the Red Tails downed 11 German fighters that day with no losses. Lt. Clarence "Lucky" Lester shot down three on his own. There's a man who earned his nickname.
On July 24, Col. Davis again led 53 P-51s in escorting bombers into southern Germany. Again, you flew outnumbered, but you destroyed four enemy aircraft without losing a plane. While returning to base, Davis led the 332nd in strafing ground targets.
Three days later, Lee Rayford led 52 P-51s from across the group flying cover for B-24s. Despite being outnumbered by attacking German fighters, the Tuskegee Airmen shot down eight enemy aircraft. For the rest of the war, the 332nd flew bomber escort and ground attack missions, scoring kills and mounting an effective defense of American bombers.
On March 24, 1945, Col. Davis led 54 aviators in escorting a bomber mission all the way to Berlin. The 332nd was the first Italian-based fighter outfit tasked to fly this demanding mission, which covered a total of 1,600 miles. When not relieved as planned by another fighter outfit at the end of their leg of the escort, the Tuskegee Airmen pressed on to the target with the B-17s, despite the fact that the airmen were low on fuel and low on ammo. You fought off waves of German fighters, and by the end of the day had made history because you shot down three German jet fighters while losing only one friendly fighter and no bombers.
I am told that we are fortunate to have with us tonight Dr. Roscoe Brown -- the last surviving Red Tail to have downed a German Me-262. ...
In the end, the 332nd Fighter Group was awarded the Presidential Distinguished Unit Citation for this Berlin mission because, to quote from the citation, "of your conspicuous gallantry, professional skill and devotion to duty."
On March 31, '45, the Red Tails shot down 13 German fighters in your best day ever. On April 26, 1945, the Tuskegee Airmen downed the last four enemy aircraft destroyed in combat in the Mediterranean theater.
It was a great record. You are true American heroes.
I will tell you that while I have dwelled on the exploits of the aviators tonight, if you were to talk to those very same aviators, they would be the first to tell you they could not have succeeded but for the tremendous support provided by the ground crews.
In that war, as in all wars in which aviation has played a key role, it was the maintainers, the munition handlers, the security troops -- all of those people who came together to make a fighter force -- that allowed those aviators to be the tip of the spear. So it is as a team that we remember the Tuskegee Airmen.
So by the war's end, the Tuskegee Airmen had shot down 111 enemy aircraft and destroyed another 150 on the ground. They disabled more than 600 box cars, locomotives and rolling stock, and sunk one German destroyer and 40 other boats and barges. But most importantly, the premier aspect of your legacy in the air was that you flew 200 bomber escort missions against some of the most heavily defended targets in the Third Reich and never lost a bomber to enemy fighters.
This unique success was a testimony to both the skill and the discipline of the Tuskegee Airmen. But as you well know, your achievements came at a high price. Sixty-six fellow pilots were killed in action, and 32 were captured and became prisoners of war. But your sacrifices were not in vain, because you defeated a barbarous regime and you created the conditions that eventually allowed democracy and economic freedom to flourish in that part of the world.
Col. Bill Campbell, who served with the 99th Fighter Squadron, went on to command the 332nd after the war. ...
After fighting in World War II, Col. Chuck McGee went on to fly and fight in Korea and in Vietnam. He racked up the highest three-war total of fighter missions of any Air Force aviator -- 409 missions. He is also with us. An American hero and an Air Force legend.
Of course Col. Benny Davis pursued a highly successful Air Force career. He retired as a three-star general and served as the secretary of transportation in the mid-1970s. He could not be here tonight, but when I spoke to him on Thursday and told him that I was going to be here, he asked that I pass on his regards to his old comrades.
I will tell you that Americans stand in awe of the professionalism, the tenacity and the courage of the Tuskegee Airmen, that you demonstrated in fighting on two fronts in World War II. You fought against the Axis powers in Europe and against racism at home. Your tremendous accomplishments spoke louder than words and provided compelling evidence that led to the integration of our nation's armed forces. That s why it's important for your story to be told to the American public, and why the HBO film is so important.
Thanks to the generosity of Bill Terry and the Tuskegee Airmen Board of Directors, we recently unveiled four wonderful paintings in the Pentagon that vividly depict the legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen. These historically accurate and moving paintings show 332nd fighters engaged in ground attack, bomber escort and air-to-air operations. They capture some of that ground crew action also, because in one painting we see the aircraft on the ground before mission takeoff.
While they're on loan to the Air Force art collection, we have placed these vivid reminders of your accomplishments in the most prominent location along the ninth corridor on the fourth floor of the Pentagon. More than 125,000 visitors a year will pass this area on Pentagon tours. They will view the paintings, and they will learn of your combat exploits from the tour guides.
If you'll allow me to briefly turn to the second part of your convention theme, that is, building a better world, and suggest how you might help us build a better Air Force.
First, as you may be aware, there's a declining interest in serving the military among our nation's youth. While we have drawn down the size of the Air Force and all of our services, it's critical that we continue to attract significant numbers of high-quality people to our service, both as officers and as enlisted members.
I would tell you that we're particularly concerned about a marked decrease in the propensity to enlist of young African Americans. This is a set of data that comes from nationwide surveys that we take in our recruiting programs. What we have seen is that there has been five times the decline among young blacks in this measure than we've seen among our young whites, and this concerns us.
We went from 54 percent of our black youth expressing a desire to serve in some branch of the military in 1989 to 32 percent in 1994. This compares to white youths who went from 26 [percent] to 22 percent. So I ask your help in turning ... this situation around by encouraging all of our youth to consider serving in our military and in our Air Force.
African Americans have historically volunteered in large numbers to help defend our nation since its inception. Examples abound everywhere. African Americans fought in the Continental Army to help defeat the British. Black sailors and soldiers fought in the War of 1812. Blacks came to make up 12 percent of the Union Army by 1865, and they earned 20 Medals of Honor during the Civil War.
Following that war, the Buffalo Soldiers played a key role in pacifying the West with their heroism. And they were there at San Juan Hill with Teddy Roosevelt and the other Rough Riders. All the regiments of the 93rd Division contributed to allied victory in World War I. And you, yourselves, wrote a splendid page in the book of history when the Tuskegee Airmen helped defeat the Nazi menace in World War II.
African-American soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines participated in integrated units in Korea and Vietnam and the Persian Gulf War. But we need your help to inspire black youths to continue to serve in the profession of arms of ours.
I will tell you that I have a concern within this larger issue, that is, with the number of African Americans who are entering Air Force pilot training. I need your help, here, in encouraging young blacks to become Air Force pilots and capitalizing on all that that means in terms of opportunities.
The number entering our pilot training program has really never exceeded or even reached the 5 percent level of all total entrants. Our best two years were in 1992 and 1993, when we stood at 4 percent. Last year, that number declined to 3 percent.
I think you can be part of the solution to this by your mentoring programs. You can help by mentoring black youths through an organization that many of you are familiar with. It's called the Air Force Cadet Officer Mentor Action Program, or AFCOMAP. AFCOMAP's mission is to strengthen future leaders, Air Force leaders, through mentorship. Today, there are 37 Tuskegee Airmen chapters spread across every region of this country, but only five AFCOMAP chapters -- one in Washington, D.C., one at McClellan Air Force Base [Calif.], one at Wright-Patterson [Air Force Base, Ohio], one at Maxwell Field [Ala.], and one in Los Angeles.
Next year, AFCOMAP hopes to expand to Randolph Air Force Base, Texas; Scott Air Force Base, Ill.; and Langley Air Force Base, Va. I would urge you to consider helping the Air Force and our nation by forming AFCOMAP chapters in the remaining areas that do not have them. If you did so, I'm convinced that it would lead to a resurgence in the propensity to enlist and also increase the number of young black men and women who apply for pilot training.
For those of us who have had the pleasure of flying and know what it means -- the thrill, the excitement, the sense of accomplishment -- this is something that all of our people should have the opportunity to share in.
Last year my friend and colleague, the assistant secretary of the Air Force, ... Rodney Coleman, spoke to you about getting involved in the education and advancement of American youth. He appealed to the Tuskegee Airmen chapters to undertake mentoring programs for our best young men and women in high school to encourage them to consider an Air Force career. I believe that you have a vehicle to do this in the AFCOMAP program. It's interracial in character, but it has the greatest potential to impact our minorities.
I encourage you to begin your mentoring efforts below the high school level, to encourage young African Americans to join the profession of arms. Not because we are looking for cannon fodder, not because we are looking for great numbers, but because we believe this is a noble profession. It's worthy of the young men and women of our country.
I urge you to encourage them to consider applying for admission to our Air Force Academy for their college education because that's one of the best routes to becoming an Air Force officer, an engineer, a space specialist or a pilot. Help us promote Air Force precommissioning programs at colleges and universities. Tell students about the exciting careers there are, and how your service to your country and our Air Force helped you succeed in business, in government, in finance and in public service. Because not only the Air Force, but the country will benefit if you help us spread the good news about military service.
So in closing, on behalf of the men and women of the United States Air Force, let me personally express our sincere appreciation for your heroic contributions to victory in World War II and to express our appreciation to you for your continued support of the armed forces that defend our great nation.
Published for internal information use by the American ForcesInformation Service, a field activity of the Office of the Assistant to the Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs), Washington, D.C. Parenthetical entries are speaker/author notes; bracketed entries are editorial notes. This material is in the public domain and may be reprinted without permission. Defense Issues is available on the Internet via the World Wide Web at http://www.defenselink.mil/speeches/index.html.