Tuskegee Airmen To Be Honored At Last

Lt. Col. Herbert Carter has a lot of memories about two of this country's hardest-fought battles — one against Adolf Hitler, the other against Jim Crow.

Carter made history in World War II as one of the first African-American fighter pilots, CBS News correspondent Richard Schlesinger reports. At age 22 he was an original member of the all-black Tuskegee Airmen, who had to fight for the right to fight for their country.

"We were told that we were lackadaisical. That was an insult, to say that you were too stupid to serve your country," Carter says.

At the time, black servicemen were seen more often in the kitchen than the cockpit.

"Our philosophy was that the antidote to racism and separatism was excellence in performance," Carter says.

Tuskegee Pilot: 'We Were Good'
They trained hard at the base in Tuskegee Ala., which has been made a national historic site and will soon be restored.

Today, no one doubts the skill or the patriotism or the heroism of those pilots. But back when Tuskegee was their training base, during the war, the only people who expected the Tuskegee Airmen to succeed were the airmen themselves.

"We were damn good!," Carter says.

He's not just bragging. There were about 1,000 black fighter pilots in the group. They flew more than 16,000 times during the war, won more than 900 medals — and the Germans never shot down a bomber they were protecting.

New York Rep. Charles Rangel led the fight to award the Tuskegee Airmen the highest honor Congress can bestow, the Congressional Gold Medal, as a tribute to their victories over there and their suffering over here.

"The sad part of the story is when they came home, they were just black men who served their country and were subjected to the same discrimination that existed before their heroic acts," says Rangel.

The Airmen have won a slew of other honors, but this medal can't come too soon for Carter.

"It simply says that the United States of America is saying, finally, a job well done," he says.

Carter is one of only about 130 known surviving Tuskegee pilots — old men now whose skills were recognized years ago, but who are only now getting the recognition they deserve.
  • Melissa McNamara

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