Jr. Orange Bowl parade is set for Sunday

The 65th Annual Junior Orange Bowl Parade has a new date: Sunday.

The Coral Gables parade, which used to be held in late December to lead into the Orange Bowl game, is now scheduled to kick off the holiday season.

“Since the Orange Bowl game isn't on an exact date, we wanted to make it on a day where it would be consistent year after year,” said Kathleen Slesnick Kauffman, parade chair, said of the new date. “So if we begin to plan it on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, people will be able to expect an exact date from now on.”

This year, three Tuskegee Airmen will serve as the grand marshals of the parade, which begins at 6 p.m. Sunday in downtown Coral Gables. The 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 and ultimately served during World War II, escorting bombers and flying missions to search and destroy German jet fighters.

But as a result of racial segregation at the time, they were not always welcome.

Lt. Col. Leo Gray, one of the original Tuskegee Airmen, served as a pilot in Italy in 1945.

“The whole experience was a classic example of overcoming adversity,” said Gray, 89, who lives in Coconut Creek. “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.”

Lt. Col. Eldridge Williams, 96, will join Gray as grand marshal. Williams, of Miami, was drafted in 1941 but could not become a pilot after an examining physician told him he had “impaired vision.” He instead trained fellow Airmen in physical fitness and survival. He retired from the military in 1963.

“It’s nice that they are having a parade,” Williams said. “It will be a different experience and I look forward to being there.”

The third grand marshal is retired Judge Richard Rutledge. Rutledge, 91, enlisted in the Army Corps in 1941 and spent five years as an Airman, participating in the invasion of the Palau Islands in the South Pacific. He later graduated from New York University and Brooklyn Law School and practiced law for 34 years in Queens, N.Y. In 1990, he was named a justice of the Supreme Court of the State of New York, where he served for 14 years, before retiring to South Florida.

Slesnick Kauffman, daughter of Don Slesnick, the former Coral Gables mayor, has been attending the parade since she was a child.

“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,” she said. “Then the fact that we will have the Tuskegee Airmen will really make this year’s event really fulfilling.”

The parade will include local and national high school bands, show horses, performers, and floats — all marching down Miracle Mile. The parade is free for those who stand on the sidewalk; grandstand seats are $10 and VIP tickets cost $20.This year’s theme is “Illumination Spectacular.”

Coral Gables Vice Mayor William Kerdyk Jr., who served as president of the parade in 1993, says this year’s parade will be more special due to the Airmen.

“It’s a different type of festival. It’s one that features children and it’s a parade that has been unique,” said Kerdyk. “Having the Tuskegee Airmen as the centerpiece makes it even more interesting.”

Richard Hall, who served in the Air Force from 1979-1992, is president of the Miami Chapter of Tuskegee 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, 56, who has been a pilot for United Airlines for 21 years and lives in Miramar. “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.”

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,” said Gray. “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.”