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African American Aviation Pioneers Honored At Nut Tree Airport

VACAVILLE (CBS13) -- A group of unsung heroes were honored in Vacaville, Sunday.  The historic Tuskegee Airmen, known as the first Black pilots in the U.S. Army-Air Force, were the center of attention at the Nut Tree Airport.  The event is the first of its kind on the West Coast, put on by the Tuskegee Airmen Heritage Chapter.

The airmen were an inspiration to the Black community during and after World War II.  Their legacy inspired one woman to join the Air Force.  "It made me know all things are possible," said Theresa Claiborne.

Two decades in the Air Force, Theresa Claiborne credits the historic Tuskegee Airmen for paving her way to becoming the first Black woman pilot.  Claiborne was one of seven women in her class.

"We obviously pay homage to the Tuskegee Airmen because we were on their shoulders," Claiborne said.

97-year old Jerry Hodges is one of 15 surviving pilots in California, who served during World War II.  "I was also a pilot with the 617 bomber squad, we were flying 35 to 40 hours a week, getting ready for our departure to the Pacific," Hodges said.  He says the airmen's resilience helped shape American history and propelled African-Americans to equality.

"I thought that I could have joined the Navy and become a Navy pilot, but that wasn't a possibility," Hodges added.  That changed in 1939, when the NAACP pressured the U.S. government to allow African-Americans to serve.

The movement launched the Tuskegee Airmen Pilot Program.

Hodges and his comrades paved the way for Black civil rights, inspiring Dr. Martin Luther King to push his activism in the 1960s.

"(The Tuskegee Airmen) were awarded a congressional medal in 2007 by President George W Bush, which is the highest award a civilian can receive," said Lanelle Roberts-Brent, daughter of the very first Tuskegee Airman, "Spanky" Roberts.  Although Hodges was the only airman who could attend, the presence of the first Tuskegee airman, George "Spanky" Roberts, was felt all around.

His message is still ringing in Claiborne's ear.  "He told me 'no matter how bumpy it is down here, when you get above the clouds, it's clear', and he's right," Claiborne said.  Currently, there are just over 100 living Tuskegee airmen in the U.S.

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