Each passing day members of our "Greatest Generation" are dying. They lived through World War II, desegregation and the fall of Communism. As Tabernacle SDA Church celebrated its Education Day on Sept. 29, our youth got a firsthand recounting from a key figure in 20th Century African-American history.
Lt. Col. Eldridge Williams, an original member of the Tuskegee Airmen, was the featured speaker during the Adventist Youth Society meeting. The Tuskegee Airmen was the name of the first group of African-American pilots who flew with distinction during World War II as the 332nd Fighter Group of the U.S. Army Air Corps.
Williams told of his path to join the all-black combat unit. In an effort to eliminate the program before it started, the War Department set up a system to accept only those with a level flight experience or higher education that was expected to be hard to fill. It backfired when men such as Williams still passed the stringent requirements.
Said Williams: "I played varsity football, track and basketball. I was in excellent shape. I could run all day long."
Just because there was nothing physically wrong with him didn’t stop the doctors from failing him on his physical.
He was rejected with an eye problem called cupping of the optic nerve that not only left him disappointed, but afraid for his health.
Williams had a relative who lost the use of eyesight and was worried the same fate awaited him.
"I went in hoping to fly, and left hoping I wouldn’t go blind," Williams said.
The diagnosis bothered him for more than 60 years until a member of the congregation, Dr. Selwyn Carrington, let Williams know there was nothing wrong, but just a characteristic found among African-Americans. It posed no threat to his long-term eye health
The racism continued even after he joined the 332nd. A hearing was convened before the House Armed Services Committee to determine whether the Tuskegee Airmen experiment should be allowed to continue. The committee accused the Airmen of being incompetent
Eventually the Tuskegee Airmen were cleared for combat. Williams recalled that one white officer chose to transfer to a battle-filled war zone rather than serve under a black officer.
"I never saw him again," Williams said.
Once overseason, the 332nd compiled an impressive combat record. The Luftwaffe, the Nazi airforce, called the airmen the "Schwarze Vogelmenschen" or "Black Birdmen." The allied forces called the Airmen "Redtails" or Redtail Angels" because of the crimson paint on the vertical stabilizers of the unit’s aircraft. Reportedly, George Lucas, the creator of the Star Wars movies, is in preproduction for a movie called "Red Tails." When asked in an interview about the project, Lucas said, "they were the only escort fighters during the war that never lost a bomber so they were, like, the best.’’
Many of the Allied fighters requested a Redtail escort without knowing the pilots were black.
After the end of World War II, many members of the Tuskegee Airmen remained in the military. Williams retired from the service in 1963, but his contributions to African-Americans did not end there.
Williams served Miami-Dade County after his retirment and helped desegregate the area. He still stresses the importance of education for young people to improve their situation. To prove it, Williams donated proceeds from his memorium to the Tuskegee Airmen scholarship fund and encouraged Tabernalce’s young people to apply.
As Williams fielded questions from the congregation many people asked if he was bitter about the poor treatment he received from the government. Williams recounted that 350 Tuskegee Airmen received the Congressional Medal of Honor from President Bush in March of 2007 during a ceremony in the Capitol Rotunda. He isn’t bitter, but doesn’t forget the treatment. Sixty years might seem like a lifetime, but in the annals of time it wasn’t that long ago.
As the service neared its end, the respect from the congregation was palpable. Pastor David L. Peay personally thanked Williams for his sacrifice for each person in the room and "letting us stand on his shoulders" as a pioneer.
State Representative Ronald Brise, Taberenacle’s Education Director, also thanked Williams and said he would do everything in his power for the state of Florida to recognize his accomplishments on an official level.
People of all ages crowded around Williams to take photos, thank him for his service and look at the display of his accomplishments.
"It’s great for the kids to see a living piece of history up close," said Shadrach Henry, a high school history teacher. "It inspired me, so I’m sure it inspired them."