Some of the best seats at Barack Obama's inauguration are going to a group of Tuskegee Airmen. They're a corps of African American pilots and ground crew who served during World War II. Senator Dianne Feinstein, who heads the congressional inaugural committee, invited the surviving Airmen. A couple hundred across the country have accepted. KPCC's Brian Watt says about a dozen from the Southland will be in that number.
Brian Watt: Close to 15,000 people earned the title Tuskegee Airman in the 1940s. Some of the ones still alive – like Lowell Steward – tend to move pretty slowly these days. He gets around with the aid of a walker.
Lowell Steward: I was in the 100th Fighter Squadron, 332nd Fighter Group. I flew 143 missions.
Watt: One-hundred-forty-three missions in planes like the P-51 Mustang. Protecting American bombers as they flew from bases in Italy to targets in enemy territory.
Steward – once the captain and only black player on UC Santa Barbara's basketball team – had to ask more than once to enter the armed forces.
After the war, he faced discrimination when he tried to buy a home in Los Angeles. He went on to become one of L.A.'s first black realtors. Now, he lives in Oxnard – and anticipates the swearing in of a black president.
Steward: I thought it would never happen. But it has, and we're proud of him.
Watt: Steward can't accept the invitation to Washington. It's too physically burdensome for a man who'll turn 90 next month. The Los Angeles chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen counts 34 original airmen among its members. Its president, Ted Lumpkin, said just more than a third are going to Washington for the inauguration. He'll be one of them.
Ted Lumpkin: I think it is sort of a recognition of that term "Yes we can." Because that basically was the motto of Tuskeegee Airmen. That we would be able to do it. We could do it and "Yes we can."
Watt: Lumpkin described the program that made him into a military intelligence officer an experiment designed to fail – intended to confirm the old conventional wisdom that blacks couldn't fly airplanes.
But the program based at the historically black college now known as Tuskegee University succeeded, because it attracted strivers – like propeller specialist and crew chief Levi Thornhill.
Levi Thornhill: I grew up with dreams and I managed to realize them. And the Tuskeegee Airmen had no small part in that. That was a great bunch of guys to be around.
Watt: His dream was to fly, but he didn't do that until after the war. Thornhill served in the Air Force for 22 years, worked as an engineer for an airline, and then with NASA.
Thornhill plans to stay away from Washington. So does another former crew chief, Clarence Huntley. He recalled how determined the airmen were to prove themselves to commanding officers and fellow pilots during the war.
Clarence Huntley: Just like I told them years ago: you might not want us over here, but you will respect us before we leave. And that's what they did. Those who said we couldn't do: we did. What was done in Tuskeegee was all volunteer, not a draftee that I know of. We just couldn't do nothing after that.
Watt: What do you mean?
Huntley: Well, we couldn't find no job. Not in what you went to school for. So, you have to do the next best thing: you have to go to work.
Watt: And he has, for 52 years, as a skycap at various Southland airports. What's he planning to do on Inauguration Day?
Huntley: Rejoice. Rejoice just like everybody else. I'm gonna look at it on television. 'Cause it's cold back there. (laughs) Real chilly.
Watt: Clarence Huntley added that if he'd traveled to Washington, D.C. in person, he'd have had to miss too many days of work.