President Bush conferred the Congressional Gold Medal on the Tuskegee Airmen at a ceremony in the Capitol Rotunda on March 29, 2007.
If you're not familiar with The Airmen, you are probably the byproduct of the same public school system I was. The Airmen were a unit of African-American pilots who performed heroically during World War II, some 15-20 years before the civil rights movement would begin a slow, painful process of ending segregation and breaking down racial inequities.
It's as heartwarming to see these heroes honored as it is outrageous that it has taken this long for them to be honored for their service.
Among those honored today was 86-year old Lt. Col. Charles “A-Train” Dryden.
While in college, I had the opportunity to work for Alabama Public Radio. In May of 2000, APR News was doing a series on Alabama military history and I was assigned to come up with a story for this. I tried hunting down history professors of various state universities to interview in the hopes one of them would have a good story to tell. I made contact with a history professor at Auburn University who suggested that I interview one of the Tuskegee Airmen, and as it just so happened he had the phone number of a couple of them.
I knew next to nothing about the Tuskegee Airmen but was coming up on my deadline. I needed something and this sounded better than any lead I had. I took down the names and phone numbers he gave me and sat there staring at the list for a moment. I didn't recognize any of the individual names and I didn't even know what I was going to say other than, “My name is Josh Hathaway, I'm a reporter for Alabama Public Radio and we're doing a series on Alabama's military history.”
I don't know why, but I chose the name of Lt. Col. Charles Dryden.
Col. Dryden was very generous with his time. I don't remember how long we actually talked. I do remember he did more talking than I did. I suppose that stands out because it's so very rare for me. I sat, spellbound, as he recalled his time in Tuskegee as well as his missions in Germany during WWII and the Korean War. I remember feeling an actual tingling sensation as I sat in that cold studio, listening as he told his story.
He was twice denied admittance to the Army Air Corps, but the third time was the charm. In the spring of 1941, he read in a newspaper that Negroes (his word, based on his recollection of the article in the newspaper) were being allowed to enlist in the Air Corps. In August of that year, he reported to flight training school in Tuskegee, just outside the capital of Montgomery. Admittance was only the first hurdle.
“Once I began flight training, I elected to remain for the most part of the eight-month training on base at the Tuskegee Army Flying School,” he said to me. “There so much violence and hostility in the surrounding community that I chose to avoid it by staying on the base.”
Dryden said his time in Tuskegee did improve after he completed his flight training and he began feeling more comfortable venturing off base.
“I went out into the college community quite frequently, even when I was a cadet,” he said. “I had the opportunity to meet people like George Washington Carver and so forth.”
Dryden's unit served in combat in World War II, returning stateside in 1943. They were stationed at a base in South Carolina where prisoners of war were being detained.
"The white prisoners were allowed to sit anywhere while we had to sit in the segregated section in the back of the base theater," he said.
Dryden said at the medal ceremony this was the low point of his military career.
I remember my jaw going slack when as he told that story.
I knew about segregation. I knew about racial tensions, race riots, and the turbulent times of the civil rights movement. It astounded me that foreign prisoners of war, soldiers fighting for one of the most evil regimes mankind has ever known, would be entitled to better treatment than American soldiers fighting them. It still does.
By the time World War II had ended, Dryden had flown 30 missions. He flew an additional 50 missions during the Korean War, but believes the work he and his unit did during World War II helped change perceptions of African-Americans.
"We knew we dare not fail," said Dryden. "Failure was not an option. We had to succeed. In 200 escort missions, escorting heavy bombers on their way to targets deep in enemy territory — our outfit never lost a friendly bomber to enemy aircraft. Never. No other outfit can match that claim.
"It's quite arguable that the exploits of the Tuskegee Airmen in World War II led directly to President Truman's desegregation of the armed forces in 1948."
That's just what any pilot flying in harm's way would need — more pressure. The Tuskegee Airmen were not only fighting for their lives and their country, they flew with the burden of the denied hopes and dreams of a generation of African-Americans.
Dryden published his memoirs in 1997, A-Train: Memoirs of a Tuskegee Airman, and in so doing reflected on his military career and the years that followed.
"Overseas assignments to Germany and in the far east during the Korean War — all of those were memorable events," said Dryden. "I was able through my service in the Air Force to complete my college training, receiving my bachelor's degree from Hofstra University and a master's from Columbia University."
Dryden has lived a remarkable life. He's seen the world and was not only an eyewitness to history, he made history during some of the most important moments of the 20th century. Still, one moment stands out for him.
"The most exciting day I had was the day that my wings were pinned on me on April 29, 1942," he said. "I had been dreaming about flying ever since I was an infant. For this to happen, my dream of becoming a military pilot in the U.S. Army Air Corps, it was the dream of a lifetime."
At the end of our conversation, I gushed as I told him I felt I had learned more history in a few moments with him than I had in all the history classes I had taken in school. I was profoundly moved by his story, and the dignity with which he told it. I still am.
I remember being told the two versions of the story I prepared for broadcast were too long and needed to be trimmed. As a budding young journalist, I had enough ego to think the people of Alabama could not possibly live one more day of their life without hearing every word I had to say. In other words, I hated being told to trim my story lengths. With this story, I wasn't interested in grabbing more of the broadcast for myself but wanted listeners to have the opportunity to have the same experience I'd just had.
When my brief career in journalism came to a close, I had interviewed a governor, congressmen and senators. I covered elections and a gruesome murder trial that had gained national headlines. Nothing I covered and no one I met during those years impacted me the way this story has.
Earning and finally receiving the Congressional Medal probably hasn't overtaken that spring day, but I imagine it ranks up there.
Congratulations, Col. Dryden, your story has made a lasting impression on me. Congratulations to you and your colleagues on an honor overdue and well deserved. Congratulations, and thank you.