Cyril O. Byron, Sr. was only a sophomore at then-Morgan State College when paperwork drafting him into the U. S. Army arrived at his Bronx, N.Y. home in 1942.
A year later, he would be arming fighter planes in missions across North Africa. First, though, he had to get through basic training at Camp Upton in upstate New York, and instruction in taking care of airplanes as part of a program for Black pilots and support personnel at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.
This week, Byron celebrated the 70th anniversary of his entry into the military when he joined veterans around the country, and those who honor them, in the nation’s commemoration of Veterans Day.
“Today, a proud nation expresses our gratitude. But we do so mindful that no ceremony or parade, no hug or handshake is enough to truly honor that service,” President Obama said at Arlington National Cemetery Nov. 11, shortly after laying wreath in honor of the nation’s military men and women. “For that, we must do more. For that, we must commit—this day and every day—to serving you as well as you’ve served us.”
To commemorate the day, Byron, of Baltimore, donned the red jacket designating him as a member of the Tuskegee Airmen. When he arrived at Tuskegee all those years ago, he had no idea that he was joining a group whose country would shun them because of their skin color then, but embrace them later for the heroes they were.
“That was really hard for some of the guys, the fact that they were willing to lay their lives down for a country that refused to treat them equally overseas and when they came home from World War II,” said William Broadwater, 87, of Clinton, a graduate of the Tuskegee program who among the members who started the Tuskegee Airmen, Inc., in the early 1970s. “The country did not welcome them back the way they did White soldiers.”
Byron said his strength to fight in both WWII and against the prejudices in his own country came from the need to thrive in the face of opposition.
“They didn’t think that Blacks had enough intelligence to fly an airplane and if we could fly, we didn’t have enough fortitude to fight,” he said. “These were statements made by army-air force committees to Congress.”
The Black military personnel from Tuskegee proved that they were up to the task, not only as pilots, but as mechanics, nurses, doctors, flight instructors and other support personnel.
While they were not allowed to serve for several years, once the NAACP, the Black media and prominent citizens were successful in leveling enough pressure to get Congress to allow them to join the fray, the Black pilots and others’ performed heroically, history shows.
The pilots’ main function in Europe was escorting bombers piloted by Whites. During their time in Europe, Tuskegee pilots flew hundreds of missions without losing a single aircraft.
“They proved they were just as worthy as any other pilot,” Broadwater said.
Though he would rise from crew member to an administrative sergeant major, Byron still feels the sting of the prejudice he felt in those days.
“We couldn’t go to the movies unless we sat in the balcony and we couldn’t do much shopping in town because they would look at us like we were criminals,”
Byron recalled of his country’s treatment of its Black heroes. “When we walked down the street, if a White person wanted to take up the whole sidewalk, we had to step into the gutter.”
The experiences were the same for Captain Lemuel Arthur Lewie, 93, a Tuskegee Airmen who served in what came to be known as the U.S. Air Force from 1941 to 1946.
As a young boy, Lewie was fascinated by pilots, but never dreamed he’d be among those to break down racial barriers in the sky.
“We proved that we could do anything,” said Broadwater, who served as a member of the 477th Bomber Group after volunteering in 1944 for the Army Air Corps, which would later become the U.S. Air Force.
Broadwater said that the racism he endured did nothing to shake his resolve.
“I had a philosophy of don’t start something you’re not going to finish, so we saw it through,” he said.
These days, the Tuskegee Airmen are celebrated as national treasures. Because of the work done by distinguished pilots such as Col. Charles McGee, of Bethesda, who completed more combat mission in three separate wars than any other member of the U.S. Air Force, Black or White, then-President Harry Truman saw fit to finally desegregate the armed forces in 1948.
“Veterans Day is a time to recognize all veterans and show respect for the ones that didn’t make it home,” said Broadwater.