Alameda Journal: Tuskegee Airmen to be honored at Alameda's USS Hornet museum, March 16, 2012


The United States was two years into World War II when Burl Smith bumped into a friend from the Bay Area in the U.S. Army Air Corps base at Eglin Field in Florida.

Smith had just finished training as an auto mechanic in a military where Jim Crow laws prevented many African Americans from reaching the front lines. But the Oakland native also attended community college before he was drafted in April 1943 and had shown academic promise. His friend mentioned the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, where African Americans were training as pilots.

"He kept talking to me, telling me, 'Go ahead and apply,' " said Smith, now 89. "And I did. Fortunately, I got called up. It was late 1943."

The Tuskegee Airmen are among the most legendary of American units of World War II, destroying more than 250 enemy aircraft while protecting bombers and their crews in the skies above Europe. But they paid a price: 150 died, including 66 killed in action.

Smith and five other Tuskegee Airmen -- veterans of the 332nd Fighter and the 477th Bombardment groups -- will be honored aboard the USS Hornet aircraft carrier in Alameda on Saturday, when the men will also give a talk.