Local Vets Given Long Awaited Honors

Published 8:00 pm Sunday, July 29, 2012

     Sitting before a crowded room of supporters and family with tears in his eyes, Johnny C. Whitfield, a member of the storied Tuskegee Airmen during World War II, received a bronze replica of the Congressional Gold Medal from U.S. Rep. Gregg Harper Friday afternoon.

     Whitfield, 90, called the moment gratifying given the struggles the Tuskegee Airmen faced and the effort they put forth.

     “We worked hard to make a success of it,” he said.

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     Friday was also gratifying for Harper, R-Miss.

     “Of all the things I’ve gotten to do, I can think of nothing that brings more joy to me than to be here,” Harper said.

     The Tuskegee Airmen were a group of black pilots trained during World War II at segregated facilities in Tuskegee, Ala.

     “The story of the Tuskegee Airmen is one of the most inspiring stories of our nation,” said Harper.

     He went on to describe their efforts to overcome “enormous prejudice and discrimination” as a precursor to the black civil rights movement. Their service is often credited with contributing to the desegregation of the U.S. military in 1948.

     “Against all odds, these aviators inspired revolutionary reforms in the United States military,” Harper said.

     Whitfield joined the military in November of 1942, a date he remembers with ready clarity

     “A lot of my friends had gone off, gotten drafted. They left me,” Whitfield said, laughing.

     He wanted to fly because he and his friends had heard about and spent time discussing the Tuskegee Airmen.

     He described his service as a time of great growth and much learning.

     “When I went into the service I knew nothing,” Whitfield said. “I thought I did, but I didn’t.”

     During World War II, Whitfield served with the 301st Fighter Squadron, mostly in Italy.

     He was in the military until 1965 as a flight engineer on a C-47 and retired as a senior master sergeant. After the military, he spent 20 more years flying commercially with Trans World Airlines.

     The Tuskegee Airmen were collectively awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 2007. The original gold medal is in the Smithsonian Institute, but many of the airmen have received bronze replicas in personalized ceremonies.

     The first recipient of the Congressional Gold Medal was George Washington and it’s been awarded selectively since for outstanding acts of service to the country.

     That Congressional honor that was unimaginable to the airmen during the war, Whitfield said.

     He was unable to attend a 2007 ceremony at the U.S. Capitol, but said he thought the opportunity to have a ceremony in his home of Monticello was wonderful.

     It was a long time coming and we’re glad its here,” said Gwendolyn Whitfield, daughter of Johnny Whitfield. “He was very excited.”

     Johnny Whitfield didn’t talk much about his World War II career, his daughter said. She didn’t really understand her father’s place in history until she was older.

     “When I was young, I didn’t really know,” she said. “That made it more special when I was older.”

     Gwendolyn Whitfield believes the story of the Tuskegee Airmen has endured because they opened so many doors for those who came after.

     As for his part, there’s one thing Johnny C. Whitfield misses the most.

     He misses being up in the air.