Special to South Florida Times
LAKE WORTH — A group of courageous airmen fought for the right to protect our country during World War II before ever seeing a day of combat. The Tuskegee Airmen, a group of American-American pilots, endured years of racism and discrimination within the U.S. military.
Cpl. Burt Richards, a World War II veteran and founder of the Veterans Speakers Forum, recently presented The Tuskegee Airman, a film and lecture about the first African-Americans to serve in the U.S. Army Air Force during the 1940s. The event took place at the Lake Worth Library Annex on Friday, Feb. 17 in celebration of Black History Month.
Richards, 82, said he thinks it is important to recognize these men because of their significant contribution to the nation.
“We’ve got 497 officers, then there were a thousand because there was a college created by Booker T. Washington,” Richards said. “He was teaching pilots, engineers, radio men, service people. The army had no other choice but to go to them.”
During World War II, help was needed to protect U.S. troops against German armed forces abroad as well as stateside. Initially the airmen were not allowed to fight alongside other soldiers because of their race. Some endured separate sleeping quarters and eating areas.
Racism within the military started before the pilots arrived and continued after, Richards said.
“The Tuskegee Airmen broke the barrier of a double victory. They beat the racism by getting admitted into the military and they fought the war,” he said.
“The weren’t even allowed to join the service (at first).”
For many servicemen, race eventually became a non-factor during combat when survival meant depending on one another for protection. “If you’re going to save me from getting shot, doesn’t matter if you’re black, white or green,” Richards said.
Leon Reid, former financial advisor to the Tuskegee Airmen, also attended the lecture. He said these pioneers faced many difficult times.
“The leaders of the country knew about racism in the military. I think they tried to do something about it but to what extent, I have no clue,” he said. “It was not just a ‘black and white’ issue (but) transgressions that have occurred over a thousand years, not just here but around the world. It was not an easy situation.”
Reid said the country had to go through some unpleasant things to get to where we are today in terms of tolerance.
“Every group has had ethnical problems. But I think the Tuskegee Airmen helped to make better those occurrences,” he said. “The past is the past, and sometimes in contains unpleasant events. But we got by that and we are a better nation, a better world for that.”
Local resident Elaine Harris said she attended the screening of the film The Tuskegee Airmen and lecture because she wanted to know more about these valiant servicemen.
“My father was in the Navy when all you were allowed to be (as an African-American) was a cook,” she said. “I know Red Tails just came out and I encouraged a friend to see it. And I’m glad I did because she didn’t know anything about it.” She was referring to the recently released feature film Red Tails, which depicts the lives of the Tuskegee Airmen, often called, Red Tails, because the tail end of their planes were often painted red.
By the end of World War II, 992 men had graduated from the Negro Air Corps pilot training at Tuskegee; 450 were sent overseas for combat assignments, according to Air Force Print News Today. The airmen were pioneers, breaking down racial barriers and helping to integrate the military.
Richards said the Tuskegee Airmen endured hardships but continued serving their country and proved they were deserving of respect.
“One of the airmen (told his story) of how he had to sit in another room when he ate. Even when he was in the military, he wasn’t accepted,” Richards said.
“But then, they became accepted. They worked their way up.”
For more information email Cpl. Burt Richards at firstname.lastname@example.org
Photo: CAROL PORTER/FOR SOUTH FLORIDA TIMES
Veterans SPEAKERS FORUM: Cpl. Burt Richards wants the public to be better informed regarding the historic contributions of the African-American pilots who helped integrate the U.S. military in the 1940s. He recently brought the Tuskegee Airmen story to the Lake Worth Library Annex.