The Congressional Gold Medal
By Evelyn Johnson
Special to the Sentinel
I would like to share with you the very special event that I attended on March 29, 2007 with my husband, Ray. He is one of the former Tuskegee Airmen and was invited to The United States Capitol Rotunda on March 29, 2007 to be honored with the other remaining Tuskegee Airmen, The Congressional Gold Medal.
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 that embody the best quality in America’s heritage. Before it can be awarded, legislation must be approved by Congress and signed into law by the President. Congress first awarded the Congressional Gold Medal to George Washington in 1776.
The Tuskegee Airmen are African American soldiers who were trained as fighter and bomber pilots at Tuskegee, Alabama during WW II. The armed forces were segregated at that time and until Tuskegee was opened for them there was no place for the training of Black Pilots in the U.S. Armed Forces. President Roosevelt opened the air field against the objection of 18 of his Generals, who believed that Black men did not have the intelligence to master the skills necessary to fly planes, that they lacked the coordination necessary for flying and that they did not have the courage to fight and would defect during battle. Black soldiers admitted to the school were subjected to intensified physical and psychological examinations, which far surpassed those given to white candidates. After completing their training, they were not accepted as capable to fight in Europe and were wasted in practice flying in the Sahara Desert. When U.S. Bomber Planes were being lost at an unacceptable rate and Fighter Pilots became desperately short, the Tuskegee Airmen were sent to Europe to escort bombers to their destination and to fight off enemy planes that might attack. Their record was tremendous and excelled over all other squadrons. Tuskegee Airmen were credited with shooting down 111 German planes in more than 15,000 combat missions.
They became in great demand by bomber pilots, most of whom were unaware that they were Afro Americans and would request their escort. They gave their lives, became prisoners of war, suffered injuries and always remained loyal fighters for their country. They returned home to the same discrimination that they left. There were no ticker tape parades, acknowledgement, congratulations or thanks for their outstanding service. German war prisoners were given rights that they were denied. Those that objected were punished and I am aware of one pilot who was court- marshaled and given a dishonorable discharge because he complained when he was not permitted to enter an officer’s club where German war prisoners were served and dining. President Clinton reversed the dishonorable discharge before he left office, but could not atone for the anguish suffered by this Airman for the greater part of his life. Jobs were denied Tuskegee Airmen and in spite of their superior training and superb performance, those that desired to remain pilots were turned away and not even permitted to fly freight. Congress passed Tuskegee Airmen Bills, sponsored by Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and as a result the Tuskegee Airmen were, over 60 years later, honored for outstanding service to their country.
Nancy Pelosi, House Speaker sent out the invitation to which Ray responded. He could have only one guest and I just naturally qualified. Our trip to Washington was memorable. Pilots took Ray and another Tuskegee Airman into the cockpit and updated them on all the latest flying equipment and an announcement of their presence on the flight brought applause and cheers from all the passengers. We arrived at our hotel in the late afternoon and the Airmen had a great time meeting with long lost companions. Friday morning, the day of the great event, we were up at 5 am and later transported by bus to The Renaissance Hotel where we enjoyed breakfast and a fantastic movie, “On Freedom’s Wings, Bound For Glory.” The film told the Tuskegee story and featured Airmen in their most interesting stories. It also informed that because the Tuskegee Airmen excelled, segregation was abolished in the U.S. Air Force. This decision later convinced President Truman to abolish segregation in all the U.S. Armed Forces. A young Black pilot currently flying for a major airline was introduced and he thanked the Tuskegee Airmen for paving the way for him and others like him. The breakfast was sponsored by the Pennsylvania Veterans Museum. After breakfast we traveled as a caravan to the Capitol. There were several buses, specially decorated with Tuskegee posters and banners, escorted by police cars with their lights flashing and sirens wailing. They traveled through the red lights and stopped traffic, as people cheered and waved from the sidewalks. A well-dressed Airman in a sharp brown suit and matching well polished shoes, who appeared near 90, years-old sat across the aisle from Ray and me. We had spoke to him earlier and I knew he was articulate. It was during our trip that he spoke the most eloquent, meaningful and heartfelt words that I was to hear during the entire proceedings. He was so awed and overwhelmed with the outpouring of appreciation, the magnitude and meaning of all that was happening that he was speechless except for the repeating over and over of one word that I had not heard since my childhood visits to the deep south. “My, my, my! My, my, my! “Each time, he spoke the word, it was with such compassion, gratitude and feeling that eyes became glassy with tears of joy, and wonder slipped unabashedly onto mine and other cheeks. That one word, uttered with warm expression, deep emotion and spontaneous inflections indicated the depth of all our feelings.
It was a lovely, sunshiny but chilly day. Washington’s famous Cherry Blossoms were in bloom. Impressive white buildings with their gigantic marble pillars, statues and intricate works of art were awesome. We entered the Capitol Building and were escorted to the Statue Room, a magnificent room with plush, velvet hangings, checkered, marble flooring and fantastic statues of super white marble, bronze and glistening ebony.
They represented statesmen and women dating from the days before the Revolutionary War, and were spaced between marble pillars. The statues seemed 7-10 feet tall and were powerful and incredible in their stateliness. As I touched the buckles on shoes and gazed at their meaningful expressions, I had the feeling that I had been transported into another time. I stood among them totally awed and marveled at what I saw. Some figures were seated, some reclining and others standing, but all commanded attention. Officials separated the Airmen to another side of the room, away from family members and during this period, I was absorbed with viewing the statues and even had a picture taken with one or two of them. The high ceiling was splendorous, inlaid with priceless tile, some of which appeared to be gold. It was announced that the President was on his way and would be present in 15 minutes, then 10 minutes, and then 5 minutes. In the meantime, outside of being enthralled with the ambience, I listened and mingled with other family members of the Airmen, took pictures, and met several Congressmen and women. The Honorable Congresswoman Maxine Waters was present and I was able to take a beautiful picture of her. President Bush and First Lady Laura arrived, but very discretely and we were all told that pictures could no longer be taken. The President spoke with the Airmen who were assembled across the room. Ray shook hands with President Bush and said the first lady gave him a sweet smile. Secret service men were throughout the room, because every time I brought out my camera, after having moved to another location, someone standing next to me would inform me that no pictures were to be taken. After two or three attempts I aboarded my efforts.
The Honor Guards, Service Men and Women and uniformed volunteers were spectacular in their colorful uniforms and usually with swords nestled at their sides. Smartly uniformed Nurses were assigned to the group of Airmen, who were wheelchair bound and a group of Reserve Officers guided the wheelchairs.
About 15 minutes after the President arrived, we were ushered into the Rotunda. It was spectacular and crowded. The Tuskegee Airmen sat in a semicircle arrangement and family members were seated and standing behind them, somewhat elevated was the Press. There had to be at least 100 cameras in a row. The Rotunda is beautiful, colorful and predominately adorned in rich shades of green, scarlet and gold. Sunlight filtered through crystal and stained glass in the rounded ceiling. The artistic frieze about the walls as it merged into the colorful, hand painted ceiling was astounding. Impressive paintings and larger than life statues, depicting historic moments in American History were spaced around the walls. President Bush, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, The Honorable Charles Rangel and other dignitaries were seated on the right of the large Podium while other dignitaries, including The Honorable Colin Powell were seated on the left. I noted two secret service men, wearing plain clothes, standing in front of the audience, on either side of the room. It was interesting to watch the continuous slow motion movements of their heads from one side to the other, as their eyes scanned the room. The ceremony was impressive. The fact that the President and so many distinguished American Leaders were present made it all so fascinating and special for me. Actually it was unbelievable. When he spoke, The Honorable Charles Rangel thanked the Airmen and praised their exceptional performance rendered in spite of the discrimination they had suffered. I was impressed when he reminded everyone that the beautiful capital building was built by slaves. The Honorable Colin Powell noted that Afro Americans had fought valiantly in the American Revolution War and every American War since that time and although their participation had been purposely suppressed, he knew of their contributions and sacrifices. He thanked the Tuskegee Airmen for making it possible for him to be where he is today. Speaker Nancy Pelosi was elegant and sincere when she said, “With the Gold Medal today, we take another in a long series of steps toward victory at home.”
The highlight of the ceremony was when President Bush saluted The Tuskegee Airmen and said his salute was “to help atone for all the unreturned salutes and unforgivable indignities” of the past. The Airmen, even those in wheelchairs, clamored to return his salute. The Medal of Honor was bestowed and graciously received.
A stately reception of beauty and good will was held in the Library of Congress Reception Room next door to the Capitol. This hall of splendor is built around an impressive, wide, marble staircase. A delicious menu featured great home cooking and delicately prepared food and drink in abundance. There was tender steak, corn pudding, succulent barbecue, lox, exquisitely prepared fish, an array of salads, endless platters of fruits and deserts and so much food that you could not get all of it on your plate at any one time. Classical music accentuated the beauty of the occasion. Tuskegee Airmen and their guests delighted in meeting each other and the Airmen renewed past friendships and related stories of courage, skill and triumph. It was a beautiful, memorable and historical day, a once in a lifetime experience, which shall never be forgotten by Tuskegee Airmen and others in attendance.
The air trip home was accentuated with well wishes from passengers at the airport, who asked to take pictures with the Airmen and to have their autographs. Three passengers in first class gave up their seats for Ray and two other Tuskegee Airmen who were also on the flight home. We wives of course sat in the coach, but we didn’t mind because we were proud to know that our husbands were finally receiving their just appreciation. Again the Pilot announced the presence of the Tuskegee Airmen and gave their names. A thunderous round of applause resounded in the skies. After landing at LAX passengers continued to congratulate Ray and the other Airmen.
They took pictures, brought their children forward for pictures and told them they were witnessing history and to remember this meeting.
Teachers asked for pictures and information to present to their classes. After leaving the wonderful people at the airport and seeing the pleased expression on my husband and his fellow Tuskegee Airmen’s faces, I relaxed, homeward bound in the taxi and said, “My, my, my! My, my, my!”