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Celebrating our rich cultural heritage

  • Published
  • By Col. Mike Hornitschek
  • 375th Air Mobility Wing commander
This past weekend, the Scott AFB Tuskegee Airmen Chapter provided a free screening of the movie "Red Tails" to members of the base, depicting the courageous African American pilots during World War II as they were called to duty under the guidance of Col. A.J. Bullard.

Their unit, the 332nd Fighter Group, was established in 1942 and was the only all-African-American fighter group in WWII. They're known as the Tuskegee Airmen since a majority of them trained at Moton Field in Tuskegee, Ala.

Using hand-me-down P-39 aircraft, this segregated unit flew escort convoys from Sicily until the Air Force provided P-47s (and later P-51s) and allowed them to fly the escort missions for critical bombing missions. At the time, many bombers were being lost to the German air force, but when the "Red Tail Angels" flew the escort missions, those bombers--and men--came back alive.

Col. Benjamin O. Davis Jr., commander, led his team to escort B-24 Liberators to targets at Munich. Once near the target, the formation took on more than 100 German fighters. For his leadership and bravery on that mission, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross--and another 149 pilots would also earn that honor in the months to come. In all, there were 744 Air Medals, eight Purple Hearts and 14 Bronze Stars awarded to these courageous men.

The unit received a Distinguished Unit Citation for a mission when the group escorted B-17s during a raid on a tank factory at Berlin. They fought the interceptors that attacked the formation and strafed transportation facilities while flying back to their base in Italy.

In all, the 332nd flew more than 15,000 sorties against the Luftwaffe, shot down 109 enemy aircraft and destroyed another 150 on the ground. Sadly, they lost 66 of their own--killed in action, and 32 downed and captured POWs.

It doesn't seem possible that during the war we could have been a segregated force. It wasn't that long ago, and it just takes me by surprise sometimes when their stories come to life on the big screen, and how it wasn't until June 1949 that the Air Force--only two years old--announced the end to racial segregation in its ranks.

Today, the legacy of the 332nd lives on as the 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing assigned to operations in Southwest Asia. Many living Tuskegee Airmen have visited our troops throughout the years--inspiring all of us with their stories and the hardships they overcame. Today, African Americans represent 14.5 percent of our Air Force, and in February our focus will be on their contributions as we celebrate African American Heritage Month.

Each year, we set aside time to honor our cultural heritage, and it starts in January with recognizing the many accomplishments of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Team Scott will gather tomorrow at the club to hear how his life's work still resonates with us today and how we can keep his dream alive. Then, in February we'll focus on the many sacrifices and victories through celebrating African American History Month. As part of Joint Congressional Resolutions and Presidential Proclamations, ethnic observances were created to enhance awareness and promote harmony among all military members, their families and the civilian workforce. Our efforts will be directed toward education and interaction to build appreciation and understanding.

Along with these efforts, we focus on women, Asian/Pacific Islander, Hispanic and Native-American heritages throughout the year. There are committees who promote these events throughout the designated months, and this year I'm announcing a change in how we celebrate our heritage.

I put a team together for an AFSO21 event last quarter to analyze the effectiveness of the various celebratory efforts and one area where the team decided to focus efforts differently was by re-inventing the heritage luncheons. Instead of putting together a luncheon for each of these events, the idea became to celebrate each culture during a diversity day, held in the summer and in conjunction with the annual summer picnic.

The idea is to have ethnic foods, information booths, and cultural entertainment that day. One positive aspect about this change is that it expands the audience to include family members, instead of the usual workforce attendees. I'm excited to try something a little different this year, and I'm sure those who are in charge of the committees every year will find it more manageable as well. There will still be book readings, essay contests or other activities as determined by the heritage committees as opportunities to share information from our diverse backgrounds, and encourage interaction and communication. And, for the time being, we will still host a separate MLK, Jr. luncheon as that observance deserves a special approach.

Ultimately, the idea to help bring to life the amazing stories of courage, such as the Tuskegee Airmen, and how each group contributes to our wonderful, rich and bright culture that is unique to America. We must, as Dr. King advised, keep the dream alive because only a true and equal people can keep America great.