This year marks the 70th anniversary of the first graduating class of African-American military aviators known as the Tuskegee Airmen. While the recent motion picture film, “Red Wings,” has generated much interest in the story of the Tuskegee Airmen, local groups have been telling this story for years.
The Daniel B. Matthew’s Historical Society of Sewickley, has been preserving this precious piece of history by documenting the Pittsburgh area’s contribution to the Tuskegee program. In the early 2000s, DBMHS released the findings of a study regarding the African-American contributions to World War II. The study revealed that many Tuskegee enlistees had come from this region. Western Pennsylvania can boast about having the largest contingent of enlistees of the Tuskegee Airmen project.
To date it is known that more than 80 bombardiers, pilots, navigators, and support staff, including at least one female, Rosa Alford, of Beaver County, came from the western Pennsylvania area. Seven of these enlistees were from the Sewickley area (dubbed the Sewickley Seven). It was remarkable that such a small town of less than a two-mile radius touted a large number of enlistees. Other enlistees came from Homewood, East Liberty, the Hill District, North Side and Belzhoover.
It is fitting that as the anniversary of the Tuskegee Airmen is upon us, DBMHS along with its partner organization, the Tuskegee Airmen Memorial of Greater Pittsburgh, Inc., will dedicate a multimedia memorial dedicated to the brave airmen from this region, located on a serene parcel of acreage donated by the Board of Managers of the historic Sewickley Cemetery. Sewickley was chosen because the location is the midpoint in the memorial project’s definition of the western Pennsylvania region, said Regis Bonbonis Sr., chair of the Tuskegee Airmen Memorial of Greater Pittsburgh and senior project manager.
Groundbreaking for the memorial took place in November 2011. The memorial consisting of two 7-foot-by3-foot ebony granite towers will be inscribed with the names of the Tuskegee war heroes from this area. The towers flank the 10-foot by 8?-foot white monument center containing a reproduction of an original painting by Ohio artist Ray Simon of one of the “Red Tail” P-51C Tuskegee Airmen warplanes.
Construction is set to begin in March, with a weeklong dedication program planned in June. During this celebration, DBMHS and TAM will host the “Red Tail Squadron’s Rise Above” traveling exhibit at the Allegheny County Airport in West Mifflin. This multimedia exhibit tells the story of the Tuskegee Airmen and their rise above segregation, prejudice and myth that African-Americans lacked the qualifications for aviation and combat duties. The unique exhibit features an actual P-51C Mustang (Red Tail) plane that was flown by the Tuskegee Airmen, along with a 53-foot long semi-rig housing a movie theater. A 30-minute movie will be shown highlighting the accomplishments of the Tuskegee Airmen and women. The 160-degree screen will give viewers a feel for what it’s like to fly a Mustang.
Terry L. Bradford, president, DBMHS, says the trailer is able to travel to area schools, and that some schools have already shown interest in hosting the exhibit.
Bradford says other things in the works that will add to this celebration. A drum and bugle core will entertain. Additionally, visitors will be able to take a ride in vintage planes. “We are all excited. This is great history since the story of these brave men and women isn’t always readily found in the history books. I think people are really embracing this.”
DBMHS also focusing on a strong educational component by assisting schools with programs to make sure this story continues to be told. “With all the budget cuts in schools, we hope to begin an educational program to take to the schools and provide materials so that students will know the story of the Tuskegee Airmen,” Bradford said.
There is even some discussion of developing a flight school in the Hill District. “This will give our kids another option and something to be proud of,” Bradford said.
It is the mission of both groups to continue to keep the legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen alive and to assist in educating all about the bravery of these people whose story is ever evolving and coming to light.
On Saturday, Feb. 11, at noon, TAM will host a lecture on the Tuskegee Airmen titled, “All The Real Heroes” at Bethany Baptist Church in Homewood.
Fundraising for this momentous event is ongoing. An evening of fine food, smooth jazz and R&B will be held on Saturday, April 14 at 6:30 p.m. at the Rivers Club in Oxford Center proceeds will benefit the TAM fund.
For more information on the benefit or any other endeavors by the Tuskegee Airmen Memorial of Greater Pittsburgh and the Daniel B. Historical Society, contact, Terry L. Bradford at 412-741-717, or Regis Bobonis, at 412-741-5130.
The Daniel B. Matthews Historical Society has found that of the Tuskegee Airmen from the western Pennsylvania area:
•15 fighter pilots served in North African and Europe
•3 were killed in action
•Lieutenant Cornelius Gould of Homewood became a prisoner of war
Five of the Sewickley seven became pilots and four saw combat in North African and Italy. These area men contributed to establishing the Tuskegee Airmen’s brilliant combat record:
•1,578 Combat Missions
•150 Distinguished flying crosses
•744 Air Medal with Silver and Oak Clusters
•Legion of Merit
•Star of Yugoslavia
•14 Bronze Medals
•8 Purple Hearts
•66 Killed in action
•32 Captured as prisoners of war