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Tuskegee airman recalls history of WWII black flyers

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By Amy Ryffel-Kragh

It was 68 years ago this month that the Tuskegee Airmen were formed. And, 88-year-old Ocala resident Robert Walker was one of them.

Walker was the guest speaker recently at the Cherrywood Estates Veterans Club monthly meeting. The Tuskegee Airmen were the first black aviators in history when they began their training in March 1941.

They trained at a segregated air base in Tuskegee, Alabama and were not allowed to practice with the white military men. They were recruited into a special Army Air Corps program that trained blacks to fly and maintain combat aircraft. FDR had to overrule his generals and order the program to be created.

Even after the men were admitted, many still believed the group did not have the brains, courage or patriotism to get the job done. To make themselves different, the men painted the tails of their planes red, which made them become known as the “Red Tails.”

The fighter escorts compiled an unprecedented record in the European Theater. After more than more than 200 missions, they didn’t lose a single bomber to enemy fire.

Walker said the men who were a part of the Tuskegee Airmen where not only the pilots but also the people working on the ground. He said he never fueled the plane he flew or warmed it up. Support workers did all of the ground work.

“If it wasn’t for them, we couldn’t get up off the ground,” he said, “We had to depend on our whole group.”

It took about 10 people on the ground to put one pilot in the air, he said.

After World War II and three years of service, Walker got out of the military and went back to school. He became a teacher and taught children for more than 20 years.

In April 2006, more than 300 Tuskegee Airmen, with widows and other relatives present, were presented with a Congressional Gold Medal for merit.

“It was outstanding,” Walker said of receiving the medal. He called the experience “exciting.”

At the ceremony, six from Walker’s squad were in attendance.

From 1941 to 1945, 994 pilots graduated from Tuskegee Army Air Field in Tuskegee, Alabama, according to www.tuskegeeairmen.org.

Giving Back to the

Community

In addition to discussing the latest news about veterans and having guest speakers about six times a year, the Veterans Club is a social club.

Ida Mahar, who is a member of the group with her husband, Bill, said the organization is a good way for the veterans to get together.

The group, which has about 140 members, also does its part to give back to the community.

Fred O’Hern, president of the club, said the organization recently mailed 48 care packages to troops from Ocala deployed overseas. Each of the boxes had three to four bags inside with toiletries and snacks.

The group will try to send out another bunch of boxes before the troops return home. The organization also gave the Fisher House in St. Petersburg a $500 check at Christmas time.

To raise money for charity ventures, O’Hern said they have several fundraisers each year and also accept donations. The former retired chief master sergeant in the United States Air Force said they hold two community picnics annually and a member’s appreciation picnic. They also have an Oktoberfest for residents of Cherrywood.

In addition, the group has also formed a color guard. Carol Runge, home school family liaison at Hammett Bowen Elementary, contacted Jerry Moscariello, who is in charge of the color guard with the Cherrywood Veterans Club, after she read an article about his work with the veterans’ color guard.

The group decided to sponsor the elementary school program and there are currently 12 students participating. Moscariello said the students would come to Cherrywood on Memorial Day and take part in their festivities.

The Cherrywood Veterans Club is open to residents of the neighborhood only. The group meets on the first Thursday of the month in the clubhouse. There is a $5 donation for a lifetime membership.

E-mail staff writer Amy Ryffel-Kragh at akragh@riverlandnews.com.