They served in the U.S. military during a time when they were discriminated against and separated because of the color of their skin, but adversity didn’t stop them from showing the world that one’s race doesn’t determine what one is capable of achieving.
Known as the Tuskegee Airmen, these African-Americans served as pilots, aircraft mechanics, crew chiefs and more during World War II.
Luke Thunderbolts, members of the local community, and four Tuskegee Airmen and their families came together to take part in the inaugural Tuskegee Airmen Commemoration Day ceremony March 27 at the Luke Air Force Base Tuskegee Airmen Memorial Air Park.
“We welcome you to the very first Tuskegee Airmen Commemoration Day ceremony,” said David Toliver, Archer-Ragsdale Arizona Chapter Tuskegee Airmen Inc. president. “We are delighted that you chose to come out to be with us to share this very important moment.”
The ceremony took place in front of the F-16 static display near the 944th Fighter Wing headquarters building because of what it represented – the bond the 944th FW has with the legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen. Although the Tuskegee Airmen were never stationed at Luke, Luke did acquire the 301st and 302nd fighter squadrons which were two of the original Tuskegee Airmen squadrons after WWII.
“The F-16 has a red tail in memory of the 332nd Fighter Group, which was known as the Red Tail Angels by the bomber groups that they escorted,” said Ben Bruce, 56th Fighter Wing ground safety manager, Archer-Ragsdale Arizona Chapter historian and guest speaker. “The nose of the F-16 is painted with the words ‘by request to’ taken from the nose art of Col. Benjamin Davis whose P-51 read ‘by request.’”
After Bruce spoke, each of the four Tuskegee Airmen was introduced. Their names are Lt. Col. Robert Ashby, Sgt. Howard Williams, Sgt. Rudolph Silas and Sgt. Ralph Stewart.
Near the end of the ceremony, Ashby and Silas laid a wreath at the base of the F-16 static display in memory of their deceased comrades.
Afterward, Col. Kurt Gallegos, 944th FW commander, and Col. Jeremy Sloane, 56th FW vice commander, made closing remarks.
“Today signifies the celebration of the day the Tuskegee program began in March of 1941,” Gallegos said. “Even though we no longer have the 302nd or the 301st, this air park behind me serves as a constant reminder of the accomplishments, contributions and the sacrifices the Airmen made in the defense of our country. I can assure you our future aviators and maintainers will always remember the Red Tails.”
While many may think of pilots when the words “Tuskegee Airmen” are mentioned, they were actually a group of men and women whose jobs varied, one of which was Stewart’s, who served as a crew chief and a flight chief from 1943 to 1946.
“My fondest memory was being able to serve with some of the best people I’ve ever met,” Stewart said. “I feel honored to be one of the original Tuskegee Airmen, and if I had the opportunity to serve again, I would. It’s important to have a day of commemoration so people can be educated and appreciate the legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen.”