RANDOLPH AIR FORCE BASE, Texas –
It's been 65 years since World War II ended, but the memory of a pioneering group of aviators and support personnel who distinguished themselves during the war lives on thanks to an organization dedicated to preserving their legacy.
Last week at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in San Antonio, that organization, Tuskegee Airmen Inc., opened its 39th annual convention by memorializing 33 "Lonely Eagles" who have died in the last year. All were aircrew, ground crew and operations support team members who were part of the Tuskegee Airmen - the segregated African-American Army Air Corps squadrons assigned to Tuskegee Army Air Field, Ala.
Along with some of the surviving Tuskegee Airmen, other members of the organization and active-duty Air Force personnel witnessed the Lonely Eagles Ceremony, which featured the burning of a single candle, a flag-folding performed by the Randolph Honor Guard and remarks by retired Col. Sara Williams.
Ms. Williams said the candle symbolizes the Tuskegee Airmen's heroic and determined spirit "to defend this nation against all enemies, foreign and domestic" while the folded flag represents the United States and symbolizes "freedom and democracy to the oppressed."
The Tuskegee Airmen rose from adversity and set a standard "few will transcend," she said. "The Tuskegee Airmen fought this nation's enemies in the air and its racism, prejudice and discrimination at home and on the ground."
Ms. Williams also asked the audience to pause for a moment of silence for retired Lt. Col. Spann Watson, whose memorial service at Arlington National Cemetery was held that same morning. Mr. Watson, a P-51 Mustang pilot with the Tuskegee Airmen's 99th Fighter Squadron and a Congressional Gold Medal recipient, died April 15 at the age of 93. The 99th FS was later redesignated the 99th Flying Training Squadron, which is now assigned to Randolph.
Retired Lt. Gen. Russell Davis, TAI national president, also paid tribute to the Tuskegee Airmen and their contributions before officially opening the convention.
"The important part of what we do is based on what happened at Tuskegee," he said. "Why people have the opportunity they have is based on the sacrifices that these great men and women made."
Mr. Davis, whose brother, Marcus M. Davis Jr., was memorialized at the ceremony, said it's important to continue to honor the Tuskegee Airmen and their families.
"The standard that they set, the character and values that they established and instilled in us - that's why we're successful as an organization," he said.
Following the ceremony, Tuskegee Airman Robert McDaniel of Fort Worth, a former flight officer, said the aviators served their country well while fighting prejudice and overcoming racial stereotypes.
"I always appreciate people who have made contributions to our country as these soldiers did - despite the fact that their country sometimes paid no respect to them," he said.
Mr. McDaniel, who served as a school teacher, counselor and principal in Fort Worth following the war, was one of more than 100 black officers who entered the all-white officers' club at Freeman Field, Ind., in March 1945 in defiance of an illegal order and were arrested and court-martialed. The Air Force reversed the court-martial convictions 50 years later.
TAI members like Ron Hilliard of Denver, a retired master sergeant, said they are committed to keeping the legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen alive. The organization focuses on education and aviation, introducing young people to the world of aviation and science through local and national programs and providing scholarships and awards to individuals, groups and corporations whose deeds lend support to TAI's goals.
"If you don't talk about history, you forget it," he said. "If we don't keep it alive, it will fall off the table."
Mr. Hilliard joined the TAI in 1996 after a 26-year Air Force career.
"I had basic knowledge of the Tuskegee Airmen, but until I joined, the full impact didn't hit me," he said. "I wanted to give back some of the good things I experienced."
Mr. Hilliard said the Lonely Eagles Ceremony made him "elated and sad at the same time."
"The Tuskegee Airmen have done so much," he said. "We want to make sure they're not forgotten."