Living legends walk among cadets

U.S. Air Force Academy Cadet 1st Class Harvey White III escorts retired Col. Fitzroy "Buck" Newsum, shown here, and other Tuskegee Airmen during their visit to the Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., April 24. Cadet White, a senior assigned to Cadet Squadron 20, previously escorted Tuskegee Airmen during a 2007 visit. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Don Branum)

U.S. Air Force Academy Cadet 1st Class Harvey White III escorts retired Col. Fitzroy "Buck" Newsum, shown here, and other Tuskegee Airmen during their visit to the Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., April 24. Cadet White, a senior assigned to Cadet Squadron 20, previously escorted Tuskegee Airmen during a 2007 visit. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Don Branum)

Retired Col. Fitzroy "Buck" Newsum shows Tuskegee Airmen memorabilia to Cadets 3rd Class Bachar Satchell and Kyle Foley during a visit to the U.S. Air Force Academy, Colo., April 24. Mr. Newsum, one of the original Tuskegee Airmen, served under Brig. Gen. Benjamin O. Davis Sr. and then-Col. Benjamin O. Davis Jr. He was assigned to the 617th Bombardment Group during World War II. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Don Branum)

Retired Col. Fitzroy "Buck" Newsum shows Tuskegee Airmen memorabilia to Cadets 3rd Class Bachar Satchell and Kyle Foley during a visit to the U.S. Air Force Academy, Colo., April 24. Mr. Newsum, one of the original Tuskegee Airmen, served under Brig. Gen. Benjamin O. Davis Sr. and then-Col. Benjamin O. Davis Jr. He was assigned to the 617th Bombardment Group during World War II. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Don Branum)

Tuskegee Airmen pay honors to the American flag during U.S. Air Force Academy cadets' noon formation at the Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo. The Academy's History Department invites the Tuskegee Airmen annually to share their history and experiences with cadets. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Don Branum)

Tuskegee Airmen pay honors to the American flag during U.S. Air Force Academy cadets' noon formation at the Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo. The Academy's History Department invites the Tuskegee Airmen annually to share their history and experiences with cadets. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Don Branum)

Dr. Granville Coggs shows off a gold medal he won for the 400-meter run during the 2009 San Antonio Senior Games during a World War II history class at the U.S. Air Force Academy, Colo., April 24. Dr. Coggs, one of the original Tuskegee Airmen, also wore the Congressional Gold Medal bestowed to all Tuskegee Airmen in a March 2007 ceremony. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Don Branum)

Dr. Granville Coggs shows off a gold medal he won for the 400-meter run during the 2009 San Antonio Senior Games during a World War II history class at the U.S. Air Force Academy, Colo., April 24. Dr. Coggs, one of the original Tuskegee Airmen, also wore the Congressional Gold Medal bestowed to all Tuskegee Airmen in a March 2007 ceremony. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Don Branum)

A visitor to the U.S. Air Force Academy Cadet Chapel thanks Norvell Simpson for his service to the nation as a Tuskegee Airman during a visit to the Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo. Mr. Simpson and several other Tuskegee Airmen from the Denver-based Hubert L. "Hooks" Jones chapter visited the Academy April 24 to talk about Air Force heritage with cadets. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Don Branum)

A visitor to the U.S. Air Force Academy Cadet Chapel thanks Norvell Simpson for his service to the nation as a Tuskegee Airman during a visit to the Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo. Mr. Simpson and several other Tuskegee Airmen from the Denver-based Hubert L. "Hooks" Jones chapter visited the Academy April 24 to talk about Air Force heritage with cadets. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Don Branum)

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- The Tuskegee Airmen secured their place in history more than 60 years ago by doing what few people thought they could. They overcame naysayers in the U.S. Army Air Corps before they overcame the Luftwaffe in the skies over Italy and Germany. Their legendary story has inspired numerous books and one movie ... and thousands of U.S. Air Force Academy cadets. 

Six Tuskegee Airmen visited the Air Force Academy April 24 to share their stories with the Air Force's next generation of leaders. Among them were three veterans of the original Tuskegee Airmen: Dr. Granville Coggs, retired Col. Fitzroy "Buck" Newsum and Samuel Hunter Jr. 

Dr. Coggs, a resident of San Antonio, was the first Tuskegee Airman to arrive. He spoke to about a dozen cadets during a World War II history class. Born in 1925, Dr. Coggs first became interested in flying after he saw a plane fly low over his hometown of Little Rock, Ark. 

"As soon as I saw that plane, I knew that's what I wanted to do," he said. 

He volunteered to join the Army and sought an opportunity to fly. His dream abruptly met the Pentagon's conventional wisdom. 

"The traditional wisdom was that blacks could not fly planes," Dr. Coggs said. "They didn't think we were smart enough to fly." 

The Army established a training program for black Airmen at Tuskegee University, Ala., in 1940 as an experiment to see whether the conventional wisdom held any truth. More than 1,000 students, including Dr. Coggs, went through training there. Dr. Coggs was assigned to the 477th Bombardier Group and finished his pilot training in October 1945, months after World War II ended. 

"When people asked me where I flew during the war, I told them, 'South America.' When they asked where in South America, I told them: Arkansas, Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama and Texas," he joked. 

Mr. Newsum, another of the guests, showed cadets items from his collection of Tuskegee Airmen memorabilia, including photos of Tuskegee Airmen. Visible in some of the black and white photos were P-51 Mustangs, their tails painted darker than the rest of the aircraft. Had the photos been in color, they would have shown the trademark "Red Tail" that let B-25 Mitchell bomber crews know they were in safe hands. 

"That was part of the mystique surrounding the Tuskegee Airmen," Dr. Coggs said. "The Tuskegee Airmen pilots were damn good and damn dedicated. (Then Lt. Col.) Ben Davis Jr. knew that we had to be better than 'good.' We painted the tail fins red so the bombers would know who was escorting them." 

Dr. Cobbs, along with Mr. Newsum and Mr. Hunter, attended the Jan. 20 inauguration of Barack Obama as the United States' 44th president. 

"He invited us because he knew that he had reached that office because of the Tuskegee Airmen," Dr. Coggs said. "That was one high point of my year. Another is being here today." 

Cadets with the Academy's Way of Life Committee typically volunteer their time to make sure the Tuskegee Airmen's annual visit runs smoothly. Cadet 1st Class Harvey White III has twice escorted the Tuskegee Airmen, both for this visit and for one in 2007. 

"The Tuskegee Airmen are part of my heritage," said Cadet White, who wants to become a fighter pilot after he graduates in a few weeks. "They were the first black pilots, and I came here with dreams of being a pilot. I knew about the Tuskegee Airmen before I came here, so I thought it would be cool to see the legends, the history." 

The cadet said his first meeting with the Tuskegee Airmen during their 2007 visit was awe-inspiring. 

"I didn't ask too many questions," he said. "It was enough to be in their presence and let them interact with one another." 

Cadet White said that meeting the Tuskegee Airmen reinforced his desire to serve his country. 

"What they accomplished is a lot tougher than what I've gone through," he said. "They had to work with people who didn't want to work with them, and they did it with class." 

The Tuskegee Airmen led the nation toward an era where, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, men would be judged "based not on the color of their skin, but on the content of their character." But, Dr. Coggs warned, the United States isn't there yet. 

"Is the country where we should be? No. Sunday at 11 a.m. is still the most segregated time of year," he said, referring to church services across the country. "But such great progress! If you asked me 10 years ago if a black man could be president, my answer would have been no. But I view the glass as half full rather than half empty. Are we there? No. Do I look to the future? Yes." 

Cadet White sees the history of the Tuskegee Airmen as unlikely to repeat itself.
"I don't think it'll ever be just like that again," he said. "I don't think it could be like that again -- we have a more equal mindset now." 

Col. Mark Wells, head of the Academy's History Department, thanked the Tuskegee Airmen for their contributions to the Academy and to the Air Force. 

"The words that come to my mind are remembering the past and embracing the future," Colonel Wells said. "These words resonate. The lessons of patriotism and courage that the Tuskegee Airmen and other veterans of the second world war ... have taught us will never be forgotten."