Original Tuskegee Airman reflects on WWII

July 2, 2011 5:25:21 PM PDT
One of the men who helped break color barriers in the U.S. military is back in the Chicago area this holiday weekend.

George Porter was one of the original Tuskegee Airmen, which was the first all black U.S. military unit of World War II pilots, navigators, bombardiers, mechanics and others.

"We didn't know we were making history at the time. But I tell you what, I did my best," Porter said.

In town for his family reunion, the 89-year-old Louisiana resident took in the DuSable Museum's "Black Wings" exhibit on its opening day. The traveling Smithsonian presentation chronicles not only the experiences but also the impact of Americans of African descent like Bessie Coleman and Benjamin O. Davis in aviation.

"The Fourth of July is Independence Day, and we're celebrating American dreams of flight. We're talking about pioneers in aviation who were African American," said DeMarcus Hyler with the DuSable Museum of African American History.

The "Black Wings" exhibition will be at the DuSable Museum through September 25.

After being drafted in 1942, Porter became one of the original member of the storied group, which was named for the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama where they trained. Among other duties, Porter was a test flight engineer in the 477th Bombardment Group, and was also a maintenance inspector for the B-25 aircraft.

"I loved those guys you see up there, I cleaned their airplanes for them and everything," Porter said while gesturing at some of the photos in the DuSable Museum exhibit.

It was President Franklin D. Roosevelt who created a civilian flight training program at six black colleges and Tuskegee became the most known. From 1941 to 1946, roughly 15,000 African American men and women trained at Tuskegee. Of the nearly 1,000 pilots who graduated, 450 went overseas and 66 died in combat.

In 1948, President Harry Truman issued an executive order ending segregation in the United States Armed Forces.

Porter retired in 1965 from active military service, and after 23 years of fighting America's enemies abroad while facing racism at home, Porter says he hopes the next generations will not forget the sacrifices of the past.

"What I want them to see is how blacks achieved and made a place for themselves in the history books," Porter said.

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