He was 17 years old when he became part of an experiment allowing blacks to fly in the Army Air Forces. What he didn’t know then was he would be a part of history.
Retired Lt. Col. Robert Ashby, 87, was one of the original Tuskegee Airmen who served during World War II.
“It was a definite struggle back then,” Ashby said. “Our country was integrated at the time, but our military was segregated. We had separate drinking fountains and dining facilities. Some would say blacks didn’t fly and couldn’t deal with anything complicated, so we were out to prove that we could. What really made us outstanding was everyone within our organization, whether they were cooks, bakers or mechanics, had the same mentality of exceeding.”
Ashby, along with six other Tuskegee Airmen, attended a ceremony Sept. 26 at the Arizona Capitol Museum honoring their service and celebrating a new law establishing the Tuskegee Airmen Commemoration Day in Arizona.
The bill was sponsored by Sen. Al Melvin and signed by Gov. Jan Brewer, designating the fourth Thursday of March as a day to celebrate the men and women who shaped the first black military wing in the Army Air Forces.
“Today is the day to celebrate how far we have come recognizing the people who worked so hard to get us here,” Brewer said. “We celebrate the many battlefield accomplishments of this groundbreaking aviation unit. We celebrate their bigger message about the human spirit, about how, regardless of circumstance, brave and persistent men and women can and will overcome barriers and burdens to show the world what they’re made of.”
What sparked the movement for the Tuskegee flying program was Eleanor Roosevelt, the wife of President Franklin Roosevelt.
“It was when she visited Kennedy Field in Tuskegee and was taken up in an aircraft piloted by Chief Alfred Anderson, America’s first black flight instructor, that she later said to her husband, ‘Franklin, if a colored man is good enough to fly the wife of a president, isn’t he good enough to fly for his country?’” said Ben Bruce, 56th Fighter Wing ground safety manager and Archer-Ragsdale Arizona Chapter historian.
As a result, in March 1941, the Tuskegee flying program began.
From 1942 through 1946, approximately 996 pilots graduated and received their commission and pilot wings. In all, more than 15,000 men and women participated in the “Tuskegee Experience.” More than 400 of the pilots served overseas in either the 99th Pursuit Squadron or the 332nd Fighter Group, according to the Archer-Ragsdale Arizona website.
Today, original surviving Tuskegee Airmen continue their legacy by encouraging youth to exceed in all they do. An organization was created called the Archer-Ragsdale Arizona Chapter.
The organization was created in August 1972 when the Tuskegee Airmen came together in Detroit and voted to establish a nationwide organization with membership open to all supporters.
“The motto to the Arizona Chapter is ‘Reaching our youth, ensuring our future,’” said David Toliver, Archer-Ragsdale Arizona Chapter Tuskegee Airmen Inc. president. “Yes, we are here to perpetuate the legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen but every member of the chapter knows that our primary focus is on our Arizona youth, about encouraging them toward excellence in not only aviation and aerospace careers but also science, technology and engineering.”