By Laura Casey
ALAMEDA -- Visitors to the USS Hornet Museum on Saturday mingled with some of the United States' most celebrated military veterans, members of the Tuskegee Airmen, who served in a segregated arm of the U.S. Army Air Forces in World War II.
Two of the original members of the 332nd Fighter Group and the 477th Bombardment Group, Clyde Grimes and Leslie Williams, sat for a talk by David Cunningham, president of the Bay Area's William "Bill" Campbell Chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen, Inc. Cunningham's father, John Cunningham, was also a Tuskegee Airman, a pilot who did forward observation for artillery.
"These men were actually left out of history for a long time," Cunningham said. "They had to band together to get recognized."
Cunningham said the men initially did not want to talk about their service and the racism they endured because talking about it actually put their lives and the lives of their families in jeopardy. Several films and documentaries have been made about the Tuskegee Airmen in recent years, and some surviving fighters were presented with the Congressional Gold Medal by President George W. Bush during a ceremony in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol in March 2007.
President Barack Obama referred to the airmen during a recent speech in which he said he stands on the shoulders of those who came before him.
"The Tuskegee Airmen were right in the front row for that," Cunningham said. "Their first victory was against racism in this country, and the second was against the Axis powers."
Cunningham spoke before an audience of about 100, telling them about the history of African-American flight. The first African-American fighter pilot, Eugene Bullard, actually served as an air gunner in World War I for France because he was not allowed to fly for an American unit. The first female African-American pilot, barnstormer Bessie Coleman, also trained in France. It wasn't until 1939 that the U.S. government dedicated money to training African-American pilots.
Grimes trained at Kessler Field in Biloxi, Miss., and served with the Intelligence Division of the 477th Bombardment Group. He worked in intelligence, reviewed flight plans and interpreted photos taken by aircraft gun cameras. He also often flew in B-25 Mitchell bombers as part of his duties.
Getting into the cockpit wasn't easy. Tuskegee Airmen faced racial discrimination both within and outside of the military in a country that was still segregated. Locked out of an all-white officers club at the base, an action which led some to mutiny, the airmen still served the United States with distinction in the war.
After the talk, the veterans shook hands with the audience.
Booker Smith, of Oakland, who served in Korea and Vietnam during his 20 years in the Army, said the Tuskegee Airmen opened the door to African-American veterans like him who wanted to get into the service.
"These men are living heroes," he said.
Rick Bell, of Sunnyvale, drove to the museum specifically to see these veterans. His father was a B-17 pilot in Europe in World War II, and the Tuskegee Airmen flew fighter planes around him for protection.
"They are the reason why a lot of our fathers came home," he said.