Their float, sponsored by the West Covina Float Foundation, was a tribute to these WWII veterans. The float featured two P-51 Mustangs, with red tail wings, followed by an American bald eagle. The 16 Tuskegee Airmen were seated in front representing the forgotten men who sacrificed their lives during WWII.
West Covina had registered a military theme. The idea of honoring the Tuskegee Airmen came about by accident with this year’s parade theme ,“2010 A Cut Above The Rest”.
“We love the Tuskegee Airmen and what they have done for our nation,” said Chris Freeland, Deputy City Manager of West Covina. “This float symbolizes what these men overcame and what they have done for our nation.”
Meanwhile their contributions to American History as well as WWII were anonymity to many of the spectators along the parade route and TV audience. However, these airmen refused to allow their inspiring war experiences to be buried.
Levi H. Thornhill, Crew Chief, is emphatic about his colleagues’ contributions to the war. “This is our country too. We have shed as much blood as anybody else. I love this country. My ancestors were born in this country. I feel this country is worth fighting for and there was never a question in my mind.”
Just days before as parade floats were being prepared by exhausted workers who hurried themselves with final touches of floral pedals to impress judges, Frank T. Scalfaro, Chairman and President of the West Covina Rose Float Foundation, scurried around the float preparation while greeting thousands of tourists. All the while, airmen signed autographs and were admired by the growing public interest in these historical figures.
“We could not think of a more worthy group of men to consider honoring,” says Scalfaro. “I think this float has touched the hearts of many individuals. I believe we are setting history with this float by recognizing the Tuskegee Airmen for the first time in the parade. The history they establish for us through their perseverance sets an example for all generations.”
Even Capt. Chelsey “Sully” Sullenburger, the Parade’s Grand Marshall, managed to stop by and pay his respects to the Tuskegee Airmen. Capt. Sullenburger III is remembered as the pilot who saved the lives of hundreds of passengers by landing his jet on the Hudson River, last year.
The accomplishments of the airmen are legendarily in military aviation history. In 1995 HBO- based a movie on the exploits of the groundbreaking unit. Many people are finding out about the airmen for the first time and continue to be stunned by the limited exposure given the accomplishments of these war veterans.
“I think these guys are heroes and it has yet to be brought to the public’s attention,” says Ronnie Picou of Houma, LA. “I don’t know much about them, but I plan to tudy about them.”
Now in their late eighties and early nineties, each airman was excited and delighted at this opportunity, but also aware this could be the last opportunity to enlighten millions about their contributions to WWII. The importance of this exposure can renew the greater public’s interest and appreciation of their contributions.
Scalfaro said “This float has really touched me more than any other floats I have worked on.” He added, “This float has a life to it and the life is the men themselves. They are a great, great bunch of guys! We want to make sure we tell their story and tell it right. I often get choked up when speaking about the float and what it represents.” The float won the Mayor's Trophy.
Neither rain nor a long line could discourage Violet Thompson, 20 year Army veteran who served in Iraqi Freedom, and her sister, Betty Knauls, from meeting a taking a photographer with her to meet the airmen during float preparation, just two days before the parade.
“Seeing these men is like history unfolding,” says Ms. Knauls. “It is great to see them healthy, smiling, and happy. I shall save their autographs for my grandsons.”
From 1940-1946, about 1,000 Black pilots were trained at Tuskegee. Among the first aviation cadets, thirteen started in the first class. Five successfully completed the training. One of them being Captain Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., a West Point Academy graduate, and the first African-American general in the United States Air Force.
“It is amazing to see and meet them,” says Lisa Jenkins, of Chicago. “Now I can put a face on everything I have read about the Tuskegee Airmen.”
Assign to escort bombers during missions over Germany the all-black airmen never lost a bomber. But these distinguished aviators were fighting two wars. One in the skies above Germany, and another while enduring the racism of their fellow countrymen. O. Oliver Goodall, one of 162 men arrested in 1945 for trying integrate the all-white Officers Club says, “This may the final time for the public to paid tribute to the Tuskegee Airmen.”
The “New” Buffalo Soldiers also rode in Rose Parade...another chapter in history to be proud of.
[Story and Photographs by Xavier Higgs.]