Lt. Col. Leo Gray, an original member of the Tuskegee Airmen, the squadrons of African-American pilots who flew combat missions during World War II, served as a pilot in Italy in 1945.
The Tuskegee Airmen, nicknamed Red Tails, were the first African-American aviators in the Army Air Corps. From 1941 to 1946, some 1,000 black pilots trained at Tuskegee University in Alabama, escorting bombers and flying missions to search and destroy German jet fighters.
But due to segregation in the U.S. at the time including the U.S. military they were not always welcome.
The whole experience was a classic example of overcoming adversity, said Gray, 89. We had to persevere in order to succeed in the program and become pilots. There were nearly 2,500 in the program, and 932 completed the advanced-pilot training program.
Gray, along with two other Tuskegee Airmen, will serve as grand marshals in the 65th annual Junior Orange Bowl Parade in downtown Coral Gables on Sunday. The parade begins at 6 p.m.
Kathleen Kauffman, parade chair, has been attending the parade since she was a child. Her father is Don Slesnick, the former Coral Gables mayor.
Because I used to participate in the parade when I was young, I know this will be an event that the kids involved will always remember, Kauffman said. Then the fact that we will have the Tuskegee Airmen will really make this years event really fulfilling.
The parade will include local and national high school bands, show horses, performers, and floats all marching down Miracle Mile. This years theme is Illumination Spectacular.
Coral Gables Vice Mayor William Kerdyk Jr., who served as president of the parade in 1993, says this years parade will be more special due to the Airmen.
Its a different type of festival. Its one that features children and its a parade that has been unique, said Kerdyk, Jr., who was appointed vice mayor in 2008. Having the Tuskegee Airmen as the centerpiece makes it even more interesting.
Richard Hall, president of the Miami Chapter Tuskegee Airmen, a chapter of the national group, recalled what it was like to be an Airmen.
During one of our most trying times, they not only overcame racism and incredible injustices, but they went on to fight for this country, said Hall, who has been a pilot for United Airlines for 21 years. Their role and influence in combat served us well, and it proved that African Americans were just as capable as any other group, especially with regard to military service.
Lt. Col. Eldridge Williams, a 96-year-old veteran of World War II, is one of the original Tuskegee Airmen who will be a part of the parade. He was drafted in 1941.
Its nice that they are having a parade, Williams said. It will be a different experience and I look forward to being there.
Despite the gratitude the veterans have received subsequently, Gray said he is most grateful for having survived.
As a Red Tail pilot, I was fortunate enough to survive 15 combat missions without harm, Gray said. Out of 355 pilots that went overseas, about 80 were killed, 32 were prisoners of war and about 35 others landed behind enemy lines and managed to come back on foot. I was very fortunate to have made it through that.