By Lisa Daniel
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON (AFNS) — As the accomplishments of the World War II-era Tuskegee Airmen fade into U.S. history, a grateful nation must work to keep their legacy alive, the chief of the National Guard Bureau said at the 40th annual Tuskegee Airmen convention.
“The reality of human behavior is that the further in time we get from an event in history, the further it slips from our memory,” Gen. Craig R. McKinley said Aug. 5 at the gathering of the group named for the nation’s first African-American fighter pilots at National Harbor, Md. “I don’t want to see this happen to the legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen.”
The military made a tangible step in preserving the unit’s heritage when in 2007 the 187th Fighter Wing of the Alabama Air National Guard deactivated its 160th Fighter Squadron and reactivated it as the 100th Fighter Squadron in honor of the Tuskegee Airmen, said McKinley, who was director of the Air National Guard at the time. But, there is more the military and the nation can do to preserve and replicate their legacy, he said.
McKinley spoke of the airmen’s commitment to service, noting that it came during a time of Jim Crow segregation laws when “this country was telling African-Americans they couldn’t stay in the same hotels as white people, they couldn’t attend the same schools as white people, and in some cases, they couldn’t even enter a building through the same door as white people.
“Why then would the Tuskegee Airmen in the 1940s choose to fight for our country?” the general asked. “I’ll bet that if you asked the original Tuskegee Airmen … a common answer would be commitment to service and preserving our nation for the next generation to make it better.”
All service members can carry on the legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen by striving for excellence, McKinley said. He noted the accomplishments of the airmen, which include more than 16,000 combat sorties with 115 German aircraft destroyed in the air and another 150 on the ground, and 950 German vehicles destroyed. Their commendations include three Distinguished Unit Citations, about 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses, at least one Silver Star, 14 Bronze Stars, 748 Air Medals and eight Purple Hearts.
“If you want an example of excellence, there it is,” McKinley said.
The military can do more to carry on the Tuskegee Airmen’s legacy, he said, by conducting outreach to make more young people eligible for recruitment. Pentagon statistics show that three out of four Americans ages 17 through 24, and more often minorities, cannot be recruited due to inadequate education, health problems or criminal history, he said.
The services also must continue with efforts to promote diversity as a core value, making its leadership as diverse as America, and hold senior officers accountable for progress, McKinley said.
Also, the general said, the nation needs to prime its young people to maintain U.S. superiority in science and technology, noting increased competition from China, Russia, Canada and Brazil in aviation and aerospace.
“We have to ask ourselves, who is going to design America’s unmanned aerial vehicle technology of the future?” he said. “Who will build the next stealth bomber? Who will go to Mars?”
With fewer and fewer Americans having a family member who served in the military, McKinley said, service members and veterans must serve as the example. And, for those who cannot serve in the military, he encouraged other forms of service, such as the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps.
“Those of us who have influence over the younger generation of Americans can encourage them to continue the tradition of American aviation and to follow the Tuskegee Airmen’s example of service to our nation above self,” he said. “For 70 years, the Tuskegee Airmen have rightfully been hailed as America’s heroes. Through the actions we take starting today, we can ensure that their legacy lives — then, now and in the future.”