Kentucky Transportation Cabinet
Governor Fletcher, Kentucky Transportation Cabinet honor first African-American military pilots
FRANKFORT, Ky. (Aug. 10, 2007) – Governor Ernie Fletcher and the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet (KYTC) today marked the designation of Interstate 75 in Fayette County as a lasting memorial to a group of military pioneers – the famed Tuskegee Airmen.
Governor Fletcher’s chief of staff, Stan Cave, represented the Governor in unveiling a highway sign for the “Tuskegee Airmen Memorial Trail” during a ceremony at the Aviation Museum of Kentucky in Lexington.
The African-American aviators, who derived their name from their training at Tuskegee Army Airfield in Alabama in World War II, had to overcome the institutionalized racism of a segregated American military, Cave noted.
“The original group of Tuskegee Airmen cadets was brave on two fronts: while putting themselves in harm’s way to defend this country, they also were overcoming race barriers,” said Cave. “It is therefore both appropriate and long overdue for us to honor these men for their courage and gallantry during a truly perilous time.
“We not only pay tribute to their patriotism, but to their resolve to overcome the racism of that period. The determination of the Tuskegee Airmen resulted in one of the most impressive combat records in U.S. military history. Their commitment also paved the way for subsequent efforts to ensure equal opportunity for all Americans,” Cave said.
Senate Joint Resolution 93, passed by the 2007 General Assembly, directed the memorial designation. Kentucky is the first state to install signs naming a portion of its interstate system in honor of the Tuskegee Airmen. Colorado has passed similar legislation.
“The proud legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen and the pivotal role played by Kentuckians in that distinguished organization, from base personnel to air crewmen to pilots, speaks volumes on what the human spirit can overcome and achieve,” said Rep. Reginald Meeks (D-Louisville), who sponsored a Tuskegee Airmen resolution in the House. “We would do well to listen to the voices of these brave men. I am humbled to be able to play a small role in ensuring that all Kentuckians – and indeed all Americans – recognize the great body of work these men did. Not only in war, but also in peace, these men broke barriers they were not supposed to be able to break, inspired a nation they were not supposed to be able to inspire, and led the way to a better way of life for all of us.”
The original group of Tuskegee Airmen included 11 Kentucky cadets. In addition, the commandant of the cadet pilot training program at Tuskegee, Col. Noel Parrish, was a native of Versailles.
Willa Beatrice Brown, an aviation pioneer who was born in Glasgow, had a significant influence on the Tuskegee program by supplying many of its early cadets from her school of aviation in Chicago.
There was another Kentucky connection in the naming of one of the airmen’s P51-D Mustangs – the “Miss Kentucky State.” Its crew chief, Staff Sgt. Marcellus Smith, named the fighter in honor of a love interest from Kentucky State University.
“It is an honor to commemorate these courageous individuals by designating I-75 in Fayette County as the Tuskegee Airmen Memorial Trail,” said Commissioner of Aviation Paul Steely. “The unyielding determination and skill demonstrated by these airmen should serve as a lesson to all that our unbridled spirit cannot and should not be bound by preconceived ideas and falsehoods.”
The saga of the Tuskegee Airmen began in July, 1941, when 13 cadets entered training at Tuskegee Army Air Field. After nine months of training, five were commissioned as officers and received Army Air Corps silver pilot wings.
From 1942 to 1946 nearly 1,000 pilots graduated from the Tuskegee program and received commissions and pilot wings. Four hundred fifty Tuskegee aviators served overseas. One of their units, the 99th Pursuit Squadron, saw combat in North Africa, Italy and Sicily.
The Tuskegee Airmen also created opportunities for African-Americans who trained in an array of support specialties. The sign unveiling today recognized not only the air crew but also the invaluable contributions of nearly 14,000 ground support personnel.