TUSKEGEE, Ala. (AP) — Lt. Col. Herbert Carter is 86 years old and ready for deployment.
More than 60 years after his World War II tour with the pioneering black pilots known as the Tuskegee Airmen, Col. Carter’s new mission will be shorter, though no less courageous.
Col. Carter is one of seven aging Tuskegee Airmen traveling this weekend to Balad, Iraq — a city ravaged by roadside bombs and insurgent activity — to inspire a younger generation of airmen who carry on the traditions of the storied 332nd Fighter Group.
“I don’t think it hurts to have someone who can empathize with them and offer them encouragement,” he said.
The three-day visit was put together by officials with the U.S. Central Command Air Forces to link the legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen with a new generation.
“This group represents the linkage between the ‘greatest generation’ of airmen and the ‘latest generation’ of airmen,” said Lt. Gen. Walter Buchanan III, commander of the Air Forces command, in an e-mail to the Associated Press.
The retired airmen who will make the trip — five pilots, a mechanic and a supply officer — shrugged off the dangers of Iraq, saying they have stared down the enemy before. Some fought in Korea and Vietnam as well as World War II.
Current members of the 332nd, redesignated as the 332nd Air Expeditionary Group in 1998, include men and women of different backgrounds and races.
But the black retirees said they are thrilled that a group still fights within their 332nd lineage, regardless of skin color.
“I’m proud they’re in a unit carrying our name,” said Charles McGee, 82, a retired colonel whose 409 combat missions is an Air Force record. “That’s very meaningful from the heritage point of view.”
The original Tuskegee Airmen were recruited in an Army Air Corps program created to train blacks to fly and maintain combat aircraft during World War II — though some of the retired airmen say it was really designed to try to prove that blacks were incapable of flying and fighting.
Even after the first group completed pilot training in March 1942, they were not allowed to fly for more than a year.
Eventually, the black airmen flew escort for bombers. They were credited with shooting down more than 100 enemy aircraft and never losing an American bomber under escort to enemy fighters. In all, 992 pilots were trained in Tuskegee from 1940 to 1946. About 450 deployed overseas and 150 lost their lives in training or combat.