All hail Tuskegee Airmen

LIVING HISTORY: Miami-Dade Aviation Department Director Emilio Gonzalez presents plaques to, left to right, Tuskegee Airmen Lt. Col. Leo Gray, Lt. Col. Eldridge Williams, and Judge Richard Rutledge, at a luncheon at MIA last week.
LIVING HISTORY: Miami-Dade Aviation Department Director Emilio Gonzalez presents plaques to, left to right, Tuskegee Airmen Lt. Col. Leo Gray, Lt. Col. Eldridge Williams, and Judge Richard Rutledge, at a luncheon at MIA last week. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

There are heroes living among us. Their names are Leo Gray of Coconut Creek, Eldridge Williams of Kendall and Richard Rutledge of Plantation.

They’re better known by the titles and ranks they earned and still wear with pride: Lt. Col. Gray, U.S. Army Air Corps (retired), a spry 90; Lt. Col. Williams, a remarkably sentient 98; and “Judge” Rutledge, a robust 92.

I met them last week at a classy luncheon given in their honor by the Miami-Dade Aviation Department in conjunction with Black History Month. “They are not only members of the ‘Greatest Generation,’ they are the Greatest Generation Plus,” said MDAD Aviation Director Emilio Gonzalez. Amen to that.

Messrs. Gray, Williams and Rutledge are three of the 26 surviving members of the Tuskegee Airmen, the famed African-American pilots known collectively as the “Red Tails” because the planes they flew — P-51 Mustangs for the most part — had their noses and tails painted bright red. With bravery and skill they flew some 15,000 sorties over Europe during World War II, earning 850 medals and 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses. In 2007, the Tuskegee Airmen were collectively awarded a Congressional Gold Medal, which is on display at the Smithsonian. When Barack Obama was sworn in as president in 2008, the surviving Tuskegee Airmen were invited to attend his inauguration. More than 180 did.

Our three Tuskegee Airmen were cheerfully mobbed by fans at the Aviation Department luncheon at MIA. They signed autographs, chatted with admirers and received certificates. The Florida Memorial University Ambassador Chorale serenaded them with a gorgeous rendition of Kumbaya.

It was a fitting and timely tribute. The three heroes will not be around much longer to receive such honors. Lt. Col. Williams said as much when we chatted for a few minutes. You have to lean in to hear him, but it’s worth the effort. He must use a wheelchair, but his eyes are bright and his mind is sharp. He was a lanky new graduate of Xavier University who was assigned to train the young black pilots in physical fitness at Tuskegee. Perhaps he would have flown himself except for an Army doctor who flunked him for alleged poor vision.

Who knows if that was an act of racial discrimination, but it would not have been unusual in 1941. The U.S. military, like America itself, was segregated. Black Americans were subject to Jim Crow laws. They were forbidden from flying in World War I, but Congress approved money to train black pilots in 1939.

The first all-black military flying unit was formed in 1941. Eleanor Roosevelt visited Tuskegee that year and took a brief flight with a black pilot at the controls. “Well, you can fly all right,” she is said to exclaimed upon landing. After that, there was no stopping them.

South Florida’s three surviving Tuskegee Airmen were teenagers when they went to war and were assigned to the Tuskegee University Army Air Field. Now they’re old. But once they were young and warriors. And proud to serve their country, even if it didn’t always treat them fairly. That bigotry, along with their successes, was celebrated two years ago in the film Red Tails.

For all they accomplished, South Florida’s three Red Tails are remarkably modest. They speak of their time in the Army Air Corps proudly, but you’ve got to prod them to get them to talk about what they did. Or how dangerous it was.

I asked Col. Gray, for example, if he still has vivid memories of his 15 combat missions at the controls of his P-51 Mustang in 1944 and ’45. “Heck, I can hardly remember what I did yesterday,” he joked. But then he grew sober and recounted how five of his fellow Red Tails were lost on their last mission of the war on May 7, 1945. They were accompanying U.S. bombers to Berlin. “We lost a total of five men,” Col. Gray says, three of whom were soon recovered. He says the bodies of the two other pilots were eventually found and buried, with honors, in Italy.

Richard Rutledge told me he was a teenager when he was sent to Tuskegee for training as an aviation mechanic. “I got the training,” he says, “but the problem was we didn’t have any spare parts.” After the war, Mr. Rutledge went on to earn a law degree and eventually became a New York Supreme Court judge. Many of the Red Tails went on to distinguished careers in civilian life. Leo Gray earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees and spent 30 years with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

I’ve been thinking about these three exceptional men and how they endured and prevailed despite being subjected to blatant racial discrimination in their youth. They deserve every award they get. And what better time to do it than Black History Month? Our three heroes and the Red Tails are an important chapter of American history and our evolution as a society trying to free itself of racial bias.

“There are just 26 of us left out of about 365,” said Col. Gray. “So we’re fortunate.”

No, Col. Gray, it’s we who are fortunate. Thank you and all the Red Tails. For fighting there and here.