Rancho Bernardo residents’ efforts honor Tuskegee Airmen
By Elizabeth Marie Himchak
The Tuskegee Airmen will be getting their first stretch of a California roadway dedicated to them due to efforts by two Rancho Bernardans.
The California legislature has unanimously agreed to designate the three-mile stretch of Interstate 15 between Miramar and Mercy roads “Tuskegee Airmen Highway.” It is near MCAS Miramar, an appropriate location said those involved.
State Sen. Joel Anderson said he took up the cause after meeting Oscar Teel at the Rancho Bernardo Historical Society’s annual pancake breakfast on Memorial weekend in 2011.
Teel, along with fellow Rancho Bernardan Jeffrey Woodson, are members of Gen. Benjamin O. Davis Jr. Tuskegee Airmen chapter in San Diego. It is open to former Tuskegee Airmen and those who want to honor them and educate others about the group’s heroic role in World War II.
Teel said many he meets say they were unaware there were African-American pilots in World War II, Korea or Vietnam, nor know the U.S. military was once segregated.
The latter ended through an executive order by President Harry S. Truman in 1948.
The Tuskegee Airmen were a group of more than 16,000 African-American servicemen who in the early 1940s were referred to as “Negro” or “colored,” Teel said.
Due to prejudice, many opposed them becoming combat pilots, and when 992 earned their wings between 1941 and 1946, they were segregated on base, commanded by white officers and did not have the same rights as their white counterparts. They flew more than 15,500 combat sorties, hundreds of missions and members received almost 1,000 awards and decorations combined.
Their name reflects where the U.S. Army Air Corps pilots trained — in Tuskegee, Ala. Teel said in 1945 he was stationed at Keeler Field, Miss., and set to begin training at Tuskegee, but those plans changed because the war ended and the base closed.
Among the group’s successes were one of its pilots setting the record for number of combat missions flown by an American pilot over three wars, an instructor pilot — Chappie James — becoming the first African-American four-star general and the Tuskegee Airmen winning the U.S. Air Force’s first Top Gun competition. It was held in Nevada in 1949, Teel said.
“Since Las Vegas was segregated at the time, the winners were barred from entering the hotel, but as winners they were allowed in for the trophy presentation,” Teel said.
“Exploits such as these are attributable to a group of men labeled ‘sub-human’ by an (early) Army report,” he said. “These heroes disproved all of the biased and inaccurate stereotypes and misconceptions perpetuated by such flawed studies and reports.”
While they faced discrimination in the past, many are trying to rectify the wrongs in recent years. In 2007 the group was presented the Congressional Gold Medal.
Anderson said he was surprised to learn there is no recognition for the Airmen in California, which is why he sponsored the legislation for the freeway designation. The process took more than a year.
“These wonderful, historic men served their country valiantly,” Anderson said. “This elite group pierced racial barriers and were true patriotic heroes on some of the scariest missions. Clearly at every level they need to be recognized and it made perfect sense to have their tribute in San Diego, a military town.”
Anderson said he also hopes young Americans will see the signs, become curious about who they recognize and make efforts to learn more about them.
“For me, it’s all about legacy,” Woodson said of his chapter membership and getting the freeway designation. “These pioneers are true American heroes who are also dying off with all the World War II veterans.”
On behalf of the local Tuskegee Airman chapter, Woodson worked with Anderson’s staff, along with those at Caltrans, to get all the official documentation prepared so the highway designation could become reality.
“I am ecstatic,” Woodson said.
Now that it has become reality, there is just one more hurdle to overcome — raising the $8,000 needed to make and install the signs. While the state designates a stretch of roadway, it does not pay for the signs placed along the shoulders. The money must come from the proponents.
Teel said chapter members have raised around $4,000, half the needed amount, mostly through member pledges. For the remainder, they plan to seek donations from companies and individuals.
To make a donation mail a check, written to “Tuskegee Airmen San Diego” with “Tuskegee Airmen Highway Project” on the memo. Send to Tuskegee Airmen San Diego, Gen. B.O. Davis Jr. Chapter, P.O. Box 893711, Temecula, CA 92589-3711. For chapter details, go to www.tuskegeeaisd.org or call Teel at 858-485-1097.
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