Their ranks are thinning, but the legend of the Air Force's first African-American aviators' keeps growing. It was evident last week as the Air Force Academy honored Tuskegee airmen. Just one of the originals who overcame racial barriers to take to the skies in World War II made it. But Franklin Macon, 95, was fawned over by cadets and generals.
"It's incredibly important to honor these airmen," said Brig. Gen. Kristin Goodwin, the academy's commandant of cadets. "It's a foundation we have been able to build upon."
Black troops weren't allowed to fly as World War II began in Europe. But through several efforts, including the intervention of first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, a program was started at Alabama's Tuskegee Institute that allowed black airmen to train for fighters and bombers. In the skies over Europe, racism was trumped by combat skills. And the black airmen from Tuskegee earned an incredible reputation for skill and valor in the sky.
For Macon, the honors given to Tuskegee airmen today seem amazing.
"Back in 1940 or '41, I never thought this would happen," he said.
The Tuskegee program came at a time when the military was segregated, with black troops serving in all-black units under white officers.
Macon spent his childhood in Colorado Springs and learned to fly at the Pine Valley Airport, now part of the Air Force Academy, before he went to war. At Tuskegee, Macon honed his skills and was preparing to transition to combat planes when the war ended.
He said the program, which is now credited as an early advancement in the civil rights movement, allowed him to have the same opportunities as his white comrades.
"We were happy to serve our country the way we wanted to serve," Macon said.
The success of the airmen from Tuskegee influenced President Harry Truman's 1948 executive order that ended segregation in the ranks.
"It is essential that there be maintained in the armed services of the United States the highest standards of democracy," Truman wrote.
The lesson of Tuskegee is a simple one, though, Macon maintains.
"They didn't think we could fly," he said. "We showed them."
Contact Tom Roeder: 636-0240