RANDOLPH AIR FORCE BASE, Texas –
It was more than 65 years ago that a valiant group of African-American men stood up for what was right and crossed the color barrier that kept them from U.S. military aviation.
These gentlemen came to be known as the Tuskegee Airmen, named after the Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama where they trained. Surrounded by criticism and a society that in many cases hoped to see them fail, they rose above the prejudices, finding much success along the way.
Saturday marked another success story for six of these legends as they were presented bronze replicas of the Congressional Gold Medal that was awarded to all Tuskegee Airmen in recognition of their service and sacrifice to the United States during World War II in a ceremony on March 29 in Washington D.C.
The six gentlemen, which include Dr. Granville Coggs, William Gray, John Miles, Warren Eusan, Dr. Eugene Derricotte and Matthew Plummer, were presented the medals as part of the San Antonio Chapter, Tuskegee Airmen Inc.'s 16th Annual Education Assistance Awards Banquet at the Randolph Enlisted Club.
The Congressional Gold Medal is the most distinguished award bestowed by the United States Congress. It is the nation's top civilian award presented to those individuals who embody the best quality in America's heritage, according to officials. Before it can be awarded, legislation must be approved by Congress and signed into law by the President.
Dr. Coggs, who resides in San Antonio, was one of about 300 Tuskegee Airmen who were able to attend the ceremony in the nation's capital earlier this year.
"It was a wonderful experience I'll never forget," he said. "I'm at a loss for words. I have so much admiration for my fellow Tuskegee Airmen and feel fortunate to have been a part of something so grand."
Dr. Coggs earned his military badges as an aerial gunner, aerial bombardier and multi-engine pilot while serving in the Army Air Corps from 1943-46. After serving in the military, he went on to pursue his bachelor's degree and then medical degree from Harvard Medical School. He invented and co-invented several patented procedures for cancer treatment and research.
Mr. Gray, who also attended the ceremony in Washington D.C., was drafted into the Army Air Corps in 1943 and selected as an aviation cadet. He attended Bombardier School at Tuskegee, followed by Flexible Gunnery School at Tyndall Field and Advanced Bombardier Training in San Angelo, Texas. He was later assigned to primary pilot training, flying out of Moton Field. After separating from the military in 1946, he returned to service the following year to work in teletype, cryptography and special services. He retired as a captain in 1978 after 28 years of service.
The Cedar Park, Texas, native said he was touched by his experience in Washington D.C. and in receiving the Congressional Gold Medal.
"I never had any expectations," he said. "I was surprised and honored."
While the veteran said he didn't recognize any of the Tuskegee Airmen at the ceremony, he still enjoyed the camaraderie of the event.
"We had a lot of stories and memories to share based on our experiences at Tuskegee," he said. "It was something I'll never forget."
Mr. Miles, who attended the Special Aircraft Mechanic Journeyman Rating School at Tuskegee in 1942, also has fond memories of the Army Air Field. He resided there until 1945 assisting with the flying training program as an aircraft mechanic. He then moved back to his hometown of San Antonio where he continued in the aviation maintenance field at Kelly AFB until his retirement in 1971. During this time, Mr. Miles also made history playing baseball with the Negro Baseball League's Chicago American Giants and several other teams. During his time in the league, he played against many great players including baseball legend Jackie Robinson.
Mr. Miles said that with all the blessings he has received in his life, being presented with a Congressional Gold Medal is something he will always hold dear.
"It's a great honor and I'm just glad that I could be here to accept it," he said. "Many of us are in our 80s now and getting older every day. It's unfortunate that so many of them couldn't be here to accept theirs. Tuskegee was such a wonderful experience and I'm just privileged to have been a part of it."
Mr. Eusan, who had dual Bachelor of Arts degrees in Sociology and Education prior to enlisting, attended the Army Base Instrument Command Flying School in Bryan, Texas, before teaching the instrument flying course at Tuskegee from 1944-46. After separating from the Army Air Corps in 1946, he returned to his hometown of San Antonio where he earned his master's degree and held a 44-year career in education.
While his time at Tuskegee lasted only several years, he said he most enjoyed the camaraderie and intellectual friendships he built.
"They didn't just take anyone at Tuskegee," he said. "Airmen had to have some college experience and pass an exam. It was nice to associate with college men. You knew you were surrounded by intelligent people. There was no tom foolery going on. We did have our share of fun, but we took care of business."
Dr. Derricotte was drafted into the Army Air Corps out of college in December 1944, and traveled to Fort Bragg, N.C., to be an artillery cannoneer. It was midway through his training; however, that he volunteered for the pilot training program at Tuskegee. He graduated from the course in 1946, but with the war over, the lieutenant separated from the service. From there, he went back to college to earn his pharmacy degree, during which time he also played varsity football and helped his team win the 1948 Rose Bowl. Dr. Derricotte returned to the military after earning a second degree in dentistry, this time retiring in 1985. After a second career at the University of Texas Health Science Center he retired in 2000.
Mr. Plummer, a San Antonio native, served as a flight instructor at the Tuskegee Army Air Field. Following World War II, he received his law degree from Texas Southern University, practicing law in Houston for more than 50 years. He was a founding member of the Houston Lawyers Association, an affiliate of the National Bar Association, established in 1955 to address the needs of black lawyers and Houston's black com-munity. In 1968, Mr. Plummer and several other Houston aviators stood up the Bronze Eagles Flying Club, promoting aviation among African-Americans and introducing aviation to children and teens. Mr. Plummer resides in Houston.
The stories of those six local Tuskegee Airmen honored in Saturday's ceremony are those of integrity, excellence and service before self. It is because of them and their fellow comrades that black, white, Hispanic and Asian - all Airmen serve side-by-side, mission focused and free of prejudices.
In addition to the Congressional Gold Medal Ceremony, the San Antonio Chapter of Tuskegee Airmen Inc. also awarded four $1,000 scholarships to local high school graduates. The recipients were Paige Carpenter, Ashley Daniels, Cshakenah Fisher and Rosana Galaviz. Rosana, who is attending Harvard University in the fall, was also one of 41 recipients nationwide to receive an additional $1,500 scholarship from the National Tuskegee Airmen Inc. Organization.