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Veteran of Philadelphia chapter of Tuskegee Airmen reflects on his journey and legacy on Memorial Day

Eugene Richardson, a member of the Philadelphia chapter of Tuskegee Airmen, reflects on Memorial Day
Eugene Richardson, a member of the Philadelphia chapter of Tuskegee Airmen, reflects on Memorial Day 02:55

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Millions of Americans have risked their lives to defend our freedom, but few have faced as many roadblocks to fighting for their country as the Tuskegee Airmen. 

The all-Black squadron of pilots who served during World War II would become some of the most famous fighters in American history. 

Eugene Richardson, one of the few surviving members of the Philadelphia chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen, said he always knew he wanted to fly. 

"I was about 5 years old when I got the bug to fly an airplane," the 98-year-old said. 

But as a Black man growing up in the 1940s, his chances of getting in a cockpit were slim. Even with the U.S. in combat during World War II, the military remained racially segregated. 

"There's only one … air base where Black men could be taught to fly and fly freely. That was at Tuskegee. So we took up the name Tuskegee Airmen," Richardson said.

A month after his 18th birthday, Richardson arrived at Tuskegee, training to be a fighter pilot to protect Allied bombers. Today, the group of all-Black airmen is regarded as one of the most effective units the U.S. military has ever seen. 

Richardson said it's an honor they fought hard to earn.

"They didn't want us at first," he said. "But as the war went on, they saw how good our guys were, they kept asking for us. We want the Red Tails!"

Richardson graduated from flight school at Tuskegee in March 1945, about a month before Germany's surrender.

"What I tell kids is that when Hitler heard I was coming over, he surrendered the war," Richardson said with a laugh.

But the actions of the Tuskegee Airmen had a much larger impact. In 1948, President Harry Truman desegregated the military, and Richardson believes the heroics of the Tuskegee Airmen played an instrumental part.

"That notion of desegregation spread throughout our country, where people of color could easily vote and go to school," Richardson said. 

In 2007, President George W. Bush presented the Tuskegee Airmen, including Richardson, with the Congressional Gold Medal. On the back, the medal says, "Outstanding combat record inspired revolutionary reform in the armed services."

A photo of the Congressional Gold Medal given to the Tuskegee Airmen

Richardson said it was a fantastic honor to receive the medal, saying the government actually recognized what they did.

On Memorial Day, Richardson reflects on his fellow airmen. He said he's lucky that many of his friends made it home after the war. But as fewer World War II vets remain, he said it's also a moment to keep the story of the Tuskegee Airmen alive.

"Hopefully we have young people join up with us so they can continue the legacy," Richardson said.

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