TUSKEGEE, Alabama (AP) _ Lt. Col. John Mulzac stood on the asphalt at Moton Field Friday, Oct. 10 _ the same grounds where he trained decades ago to become one of the country's first black military pilots _ and wept.
Mulzac and hundreds of his fellow servicemen, an all-black group of pilots referred to as the Tuskegee Airmen, and their families and friends, reunited at the Alabama field where the men trained for World War II. Their role in the war eventually led to desegregation in the U.S. armed forces. The field was named a National Historic Site.
“When I think about what we went through, this just brings tears to my eyes,'' said Mulzac, 84.
Thousands of people from across the country attended the opening ceremony Friday afternoon, which launched a weekend of festivities celebrating the fruition of a dream turned reality.
The airmen fought Adolf Hitler overseas and segregation and prejudice on American soil, being degraded as second-class citizens and watching as German prisoners of war were treated better than them.
At first called the “Tuskegee Experiment,'' the first aviation cadet class began in July 1941 with 13 students at the Tuskegee Army Air Field, about 40 miles (64 kilometers) east of Montgomery. Black people weren't allowed to fly in the military at the time, and the “experiment'' was to see whether they could pilot airplanes and handle heavy machinery.
The airmen went on more than 15,000 combat trips throughout Europe, the Mediterranean and North Africa.
Nearly 1,000 pilots were trained at the Tuskegee Army Air Field before it closed in 1946. After that, the all-black units were sent to an Ohio air base. President Harry S. Truman's 1948 order to desegregate the country's armed forces eventually led to a military in which blacks served alongside their white counterparts.
“The Tuskegee Airmen had their beginning here at Moton Field and dared to make a difference,'' the Rev. William C. Lennard said Friday at the ceremony. “They did it for God, for themselves and for every citizen of the United States of America. Their persistence, dedication and fortitude enabled them to overcome all manner of challenges.''
Pictured above: Seven pilots from the Tuskegee Airmen class 42I pose in front of a single propeller airplane.