By Mark Curtis
“Welcome to the Obama Express!” said the flight attendant, as most of the plane erupted in laughter. When asked for a show of hands on who was going to the Inaugural, most of the passengers on Jet Blue Fight 318 raised their hands. The flight was the non-stop “red eye” from Oakland to Washington Dulles Airport.
It was an interesting mix of people on board, including one member of a famed military unit. It was also among the most ridiculed units in its day. They were “The Tuskegee Airmen” and are a dying breed from the World War II generation, with perhaps only 200 or 300 left.
“We think this (Obama’s election) is one of the greatest things that could happen to the world,” said Arthur Hicks, 86, an Airman who now lives in Lompoc, California. He was at the Oakland Airport with his wife, daughter and son-in-law, getting ready to fly to the Obama Inauguration.
Exicted? Historic? “To say no, would be to say there has not been much progress,” Hicks said. But there has been much progress. The Tuskegee Airmen group was formed in the days of the segregated military.
Here’s a bit of the history, according to Wikipedia.org: “Prior to the Tuskegee Airmen, no U.S. military pilots had been black. A series of legislative moves by the United States Congress in 1941 forced the Army Air Corps to form an all-black combat unit, despite the War Department's reluctance. In an effort to eliminate the unit before it could begin, the War Department set up a system to accept only those with a level of flight experience or higher education that they expected would be hard to fill. This policy backfired when the Air Corps received an abundance of applications from men who qualified even under these restrictive specifications, many of whom had already participated in the Civilian Pilot Training Program, which the Tuskegee Institute had participated in since 1939.”
“It was thought that blacks were incapable of learning to fly and to do complex things in an aircraft,” said Hicks, who went on to become a pilot and worked on the Titan II missile project at Vandenberg Air Force Base.
“The Tuskegee Airmen are an indication of what can be done,” Hicks said, “That the impossible can be done.”
Also from Wikipedia.org: “By the end of the war, the Tuskegee Airmen were credited with 109 Luftwaffe aircraft shot down, the German-operated Italian destroyer TA-23 sunk by machine-gun fire, and destruction of numerous fuel dumps, trucks and trains. The squadrons of the 332nd FG flew more than 15,000 sorties on 1,500 missions. The unit received recognition through official channels and was awarded a Distinguished Unit Citation for a mission flown March 24, 1945, escorting B-17s to bomb the Daimler-Benz tank factory at Berlin, Germany.”
Obama invited all living Tuskegee Airmen to the Inaugural. Hicks is going with his wife Edith (pictured above). They’ve been married 62 years. They have three children- one is an attorney; one is in high-tech and the other is a graphic artist. They have seven grandchildren- two of whom are in law school- one at Harvard and one at UC Berkeley. So much for blacks being incapable of difficult tasks.
“I volunteered for the Cadet Corps and became a pilot in the Army Air Corps,” said Hicks.
After leaving the military, Hicks was a school teacher for thirteen years, and then served on the school board another twelve years.
“We (blacks) worked diligently in politics,” he said, “We have been impossible Democrats,” he said with a laugh.
“At last we have reached a pinnacle in the political world, getting Barack Obama to the Presidency,” Hicks said. “And to think we (the Tuskegee Airmen) had a part in this is one of the greatest feelings one could possibly have.”
You never know who you will meet along the political trail. I will have more stories from Washington, DC this week. Check in at www.MarkCurtisMedia.com.