ST. LOUIS – Christopher Newman flew 84 missions as a fighter pilot in World War II with the Tuskegee Airmen.
When his plane got shot down over the Adriatic Sea, he bailed out with a parachute, a can of yellow dye and a dingy the size of a bathtub. British rescuers plucked him out of the sea some six hours later.
After two weeks’ rest, the 22-year-old Newman was at it again, flying high in 1944 in a hand-me-down P51 Mustang plane with the distinctive red tail marking. Now 63 years later, Newman’s hometown is giving him and other local members of the all-black Tuskegee Airmen a heroes’ salute.
At a ceremony Saturday at Lambert Field, five men who were among the original Tuskegee fighter pilots received a bronze replica of a Congressional Gold Medal. Survivors of eight other airmen also got the honor.
In March, the White House bestowed the Congressional Gold Medal on the Tuskegee Airmen. The gold medal is on display at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.
Newman couldn’t make the trip to Washington due to his wife’s illness. Only three locals went. At Lambert, Newman was joined at a table by four local men – Milton Lemmons, George Carper, Isaac Wilford and Walter Fielder.
As a backdrop was the mural “Black Americans in Flight.” A young Newman is one of those pictured on the mural, with goggles resting on his forehead.
“I guess I’m sentimental,” Newman, 85, said later. “I’m glad the experiment turned out. I’m glad we are known as good, patriotic Americans.”
The “Tuskegee Experiment” was formed shortly before America entered World War II, despite strong objection from those who didn’t want blacks to be pilots.
The graduates of Tuskegee were the only black Americans to fly in combat for the Army Air Forces in World War II.
At the airport Saturday, dignitaries read proclamations. The retired airmen and widows signed autographs for more than an hour. The crowd of about 100 people cheered when officials said a city street may be named after the Tuskegee Airmen.
One woman, Vanessa Denton of St. Louis, said, “It should’ve happened way before now, the prestige they’re getting.”
Amid all the good cheer, Newman couldn’t help but think about the men who died before getting this honor.
“When somebody starts singing out praise, they generally settle on one who’s alive and can take a bow,” Newman said in an interview. “They forget to think about the others who didn’t make it.”
The Tuskegee Airmen, the black fighter pilots and support personnel of the segregated Army Air Forces, trained at the Tuskegee Institute (now university) in Alabama. They fought from bases in Italy during World War II.
Their success in downing 109 enemy aircraft helped to inspire President Harry Truman’s order in 1948 ending segregation in the Armed Forces.
Of the 933 Tuskegee pilots, only about 140 survive.
About two dozen black men from the St. Louis area became Tuskegee pilots, according to the local chapter of Tuskegee Airmen. The St. Louis pilots combined for 10 enemy planes shot down.
Myron Lane, 53, of Florissant, Mo., collected autographs from the airmen. As a boy, he built model WWII planes but didn’t learn about Tuskegee until he was in his 40s.
“Now these guys are my idols,” Lane said.
(c) 2007, St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
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