Luke Air Force Base has had numerous special days, but March 24 was an extra special day to remember. The ninth annual Tuskegee Airmen Commemoration Day celebration was held at Hangar 999, sponsored by Luke AFB’s 944th and 56th Fighter Wings, and the Archer-Ragsdale Arizona Chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen, Inc.
Lt. Col. Stanley Brown Jr., president of the ARAC, kicked off the event followed by the invocation.
Pastor Jim Porter, chaplain of the ARAC for 16 years, gave the invocation, sharing a touching story about his father, a B-17 pilot in World War II.
Porter spoke about how the escorts protecting the bombers were Tuskegee Airmen, and that he wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for the superb job provided by the escorts that made it possible for his father to return home safely from bombing missions.
The event went on to feature a tribute to the ceremony’s honoree, the late Tuskegee Airman, Brig. Gen. Charles E. McGee, who died Jan. 16, at the age of 102.
Brig. Gen. Gregory Kreuder, 56th Fighter Wing commander, and Col. Mark Van Brunt, 944th FW commander, also addressed the ceremony.
Appearing via video, Gen. Charles Q. Brown, Chief of Staff of the Air Force, introduced keynote speaker, retired Gen. Ronald Fogleman, 15th Chief of Staff of the Air Force.
Before providing his address, retired Col. Richard Toliver and William Norwood, retired United Airlines pilot, presented Fogleman with the Tuskegee Airmen red coat. In his address, Fogleman recalled a red coat he had been given years earlier, but quit wearing it because he felt he didn’t earn it.
As Fogleman went on, he spoke fondly of his 50-year relationship with Toliver. The two were part of an operations and test group testing the F-15 Eagle.
Fogleman, who flew nine different aircraft in his illustrious career and 315 combat missions, expressed his honor and pride in being part of the ceremony.
The honoree, the late Gen. McGee, led a life that legends are made of. He flew 409 combat missions in World War II, Korea and Vietnam, and had 6,308 flying hours in his military career. His awards and decorations are numerous, to include the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Bronze Star Medal and the Air Medal. He retired from the military in 1973, and went on to hold many prestigious functional and honorary aviation positions post-retirement.
President George W. Bush awarded McGee and more than 300 surviving Tuskegee Airmen the Congressional Gold Medal, the nation’s highest civilian award. Add to that, he was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in Dayton, Ohio, and in 2012 served as a consultant for the George Lucas film, Red Tails.
What’s more, the ceremony honored one of the few surviving Tuskegee Airmen, retired Lt. Col. Asa Herring, and retired Maj. Fannie McClendon, who was also part of the legendary 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion.
Herring graduated from high school at age 16 and went through the Tuskegee Airman training, but the war ended before he had an opportunity to see any action. However, he reenlisted a few years later and saw action in the Korean and Vietnam wars, flying 300 combat missions. He went on to be the first African American to command a squadron at Luke.
McClendon was part of the heralded African-American 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion. In 1945 unsent mail, mostly to troops on the front, was bulging out of warehouses in Birmingham, England. The Army estimated it would take six months to get the mail where it needed to go, but the 6888th completed the job in half the time.
At the age of 101, McClendon was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal by President Joe Biden in March of this year.
The Tuskegee Airmen Commemoration Day celebration tugged at a plethora of emotions from sadness of the loss of many Tuskegee Airmen during the past decade, to the joy of seeing the profound progress in racial relations that would have seemed impossible several decades ago.
Ceremony attendees also had the honor of hearing Gen. McGee’s great-grandson, Iain Lamphier, read a poem to his great-grandfather, written by John Gillespie Magee.
The poem ended with these thoughts:
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace.
Where never lark or ever eagle flew —
And while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod’
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand and touched the face of God.
The story of the Tuskegee Airmen is an American story, one that could only happen here. The ceremony was uplifting and spotlighted many great stories that need to be told.
“Stories live forever only if we tell them,” reflected retired Senior Master Sgt. Ben Bruce.