- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Rep. Charles B. Rangel’s quest to have Congress honor the Tuskegee Airmen with its highest civilian honor — the Congressional Gold Medal — got a boost yesterday from Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.

Mr. Rumsfeld, in a letter sent to Mr. Rangel, praised the all-black World War II fighter squadron for its distinguished service, which won national acclaim and helped pave the way for formal desegregation of the military.

“In my view, this recognition is well-deserved,” Mr. Rumsfeld said. “This is of utmost importance to me.”

Mr. Rangel, New York Democrat and a Korean War veteran, has long admired the fighter pilots, whom he said are directly responsible for his opportunity to serve in the military. He introduced the bill in March, but has been unable to garner 280 co-sponsors needed for consideration.

“I am confident that his support will make a difference in gaining bipartisan support for the legislation,” Mr. Rangel said. “I don’t agree with the secretary on too many things, but as regards the Tuskegee Airmen, we stand shoulder to shoulder.”

The Senate has passed a version of the bill introduced by Sen. Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat.

Retired Air Force Lt. Col. Gene Carter, 86, a native of Tuskegee who entered the cadet training at 19 and served for 27 years, said the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor would be a long-awaited official recognition of the Tuskegee Airmen’s contributions.

“We overcame the adversities of second-class citizenship and all of the other discrimination that prevailed at the beginning of World War II,” said Col. Carter, who returned to Tuskegee in 1965 to be an Air Force ROTC professor of air sciences until he retired in 1969.

“Even with all that we felt, I felt that I am an American and I have as much obligation to patriotism as any other American.”

Trained on the U.S. Army Air Corps field near the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, a school founded by civil rights leader Booker T. Washington, the group of more than 994 black pilots, bombardiers and navigators were organized in the segregated 99th Squadron and 332nd Fighter Group.

Their success, which included 15,500 missions and the distinction of never losing a bomber to enemy fire, is regarded as a major factor in President Truman’s decision to desegregate the U.S. military after World War II.

Sixty of the pilots died in combat, and about 200, most in their 80s, are still alive, said Ron Brewington a Tuskegee Airmen historian.

Lt. Bev Dunjill, 78, a Chicago native and the youngest of the original trainees, who became a cadet at 18, said the Congressional Gold Medal would be a testament to how much the country has changed.

“I will be completely honored that I have lived long enough to see such a thing by the country for which we fought for and died, and honor the reason why the black community fought so hard to further the success of black people and the citizens of this country,” Lt. Dunjill said.

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