'Patriotism, Courage, Discipline,
Skill & Determination'
Tuskegee Airmen Honored at Great Hall Reception
By BRYNDA WHITE
After some 350 surviving Tuskegee Airmen collectively received the Congressional Gold Medal, awarded by President Bush and members of Congress in a March 29 ceremony in the U.S. Capitol rotunda, they came to the Great Hall in the Library's Thomas Jefferson Building for a reception and congratulatory remarks by guests and Library staff members.
Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), authors of the resolution to honor the Tuskegee Airmen with the Congressional Gold Medal, had suggested to the Librarian that there was no better place to continue the celebration than the Great Hall of the Library of Congress.
Jo Ann Jenkins, the Library's chief operating officer, was on hand to welcome more than 200 airmen and their friends and families, 600 guests in all, to the Library. She thanked the Tuskegee Airmen for their "patriotism, courage, discipline, skill and determination, which contribute to the freedoms that we all enjoy today.
"You, the Tuskegee Airmen, achieved unique success in losing so few bombers to enemy fighters, that bomber units requested you to be their fighter escorts," Jenkins said. "In addition, you destroyed more than 110 enemy aircraft in air-to-air combat and ruined another 150 on enemy airfields, sank an enemy destroyer solely by machine gun fire—a unique achievement—and in so doing, led the United States Air Force to be the first mass organization in America to racially integrate."
The Congressional Gold Medal is the highest civilian award bestowed by the U.S. Congress. Congress has awarded gold medals to more than 300 individuals and groups since giving the first one to George Washington in 1776. Originally, they went only to military leaders, but Congress broadened the scope to include authors, entertainers, notables in science and medicine, athletes, humanitarians, public servants and foreign officials.
Awarded to the Tuskegee Airmen as a group, this Congressional Gold Medal will be housed at the Smithsonian Institution for display.
Before 1941, no U.S. military pilot had been an African-American. On March 19, the 99th Pursuit Squadron was activated at Chanute Field in Rantoul, Ill., where 250 African-Americans were trained in aircraft-support trades. In June 1941, the 99th Fighter Squadron, consisting of ground and air crews, was formed at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, and soon the squadron joined with two other units to form the all-black 332nd Fighter Group. According to the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, the Tuskegee program trained 992 pilots and sent 450 overseas. When the war in Europe ended, the 332nd Fighter Group had shot down 111 enemy aircraft and destroyed another 150 on the ground, destroyed more than 600 railroad cars and sunk one destroyer and 40 boats and barges. Their losses included approximately 150 killed in combat or in accidents.
Senator Levin, Rep. James Moran (D-Va.), Department of Defense historian Alan Gropman, Juan Williams of National Public Radio and others came to the Great Hall podium to express their gratitude and thanks for these American heroes.
Debra Murphy, Library Services, described both the ceremony and reception: "While long overdue, the ceremony honoring the Tuskegee Airmen with the Congressional Gold Medal on March 29 was absolutely majestic," she said. "These are true American heroes who fought valiantly for their country … a country that showed them little love as they put their lives at risk. As more than 300 of them marched proudly into the Capitol Rotunda, the grateful audience, which represented every aspect of our nation, gave them well-deserved thunderous applause and a standing ovation. This was our way of saying, 'Thank you.'"
Bob Patrick, director of the Veterans History Project at the Library's American Folklife Center, greeted the Tuskegee Airmen and their families during the reception.
"The Veterans History Project (VHP) was … extremely pleased by the interest shown by family members and friends of these heroes who recognized the importance to the nation of preserving their stories at the Library of Congress through the Veterans History Project," Patrick said later. "Although the VHP does have some interviews with Tuskegee Airmen, we were heartened that individuals got the tools from us to collect and contribute more. We look forward to adding these important stories to our collections."
Curators and reference librarians from the Humanities and Social Sciences Division had prepared a resource list and display of materials from the collections and were on hand to discuss materials related to the Tuskegee Airmen.
"It was a wonderful opportunity to meet the individuals who made outstanding contributions to our country both as airmen and as private citizens," said Barbara Morland, head of the Main Reading Room.
"They are such an accomplished group from many states across the country and were so gracious and appreciative for the honor and recognition they received with the presentation of the Congressional Gold Medal, and yet, they expressed the sadness that they also felt for their colleagues who had passed on and were not a part this celebration."
"It was a privilege to meet them, shake their hands and to hear them talk about this day, describe their experiences of over 60 years ago, and the years since," Morland continued. "They were pleased to see the display of photographs and books, to talk with the reference librarians and to receive a copy of 'Tuskegee Airmen: Selected Resources at the Library of Congress,' which provided examples of materials on the Tuskegee Airmen in the Library's collections."
More than 200 airmen came to the Library reception, and until the last airmen left the building, "American Treasures of the Library of Congress" and other exhibitions remained open for the Library's honored guests to see.
Brynda White is a congressional relations specialist in the Congressional Relations Office.