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'The original top gun pilots': CT lawmakers consider bill to honor Tuskegee Airmen

Lieutenant Bertram “Bert” Wilson, father to Pat Wilson Pheanious. Lt. Wilson was a World War II military pilot and Tuskegee Airman.
In advancing an effort to make April 26 "Tuskegee Airmen Day," former Connecticut state representative Pat Wilson Pheanious spoke of her father, Lieutenant Bertram “Bert” Wilson who was a World War II military pilot and Tuskegee Airman. “Did these men go to war with something to prove? No. But nonetheless, they settled for all time their significance in American aviation history and in our struggle for civil rights,” she said.

The Tuskegee Airmen, a group of Black military pilots, could soon be honored annually with a day of celebration in Connecticut.

State lawmakers are advancing a bill that would make April 26 “Tuskegee Airmen Day,” remembering the achievements and legacy of the squadron who risked their lives over the skies during World War II.

“Did these men go to war with something to prove? No. But nonetheless, they settled for all time their significance in American aviation history and in our struggle for civil rights,” said Pat Wilson Pheanious, a former Connecticut state representative, and daughter of a Tuskegee Airman.

Wilson Pheanious spoke Thursday at the state Capitol, reminding lawmakers how airmen like her father, Lt. Bertram W. Wilson, “had to wage war against a system of racism and low expectation” in the U.S. Army before they could fight for their country overseas.

“Like Black men in every war since the American Revolution, America called on them when she needed them, but then wrote them out of history,” she said.

Lawmakers are hoping to change that. A bill to honor the airmen is before the state legislature. It passed the House; Speaker Matt Ritter said Thursday he expects it to be called for a vote in the Senate.

Advocates hope lawmakers will establish the annual day before the legislative session expires on May 8.

Stephanie Abrams, president and CEO of the New England Air Museum, said the Tuskegee Airmen fought two wars – one overseas alongside Allied forces, and another against racism in America.

“During training, despite their competence and skill, many were washed out,” Abrams said. “A dismissal rooted not in a lack of talent, but because of the color of their skin.”

Abrams said the systemic discrimination did not dampen their resolve.

“It fueled their determination to excel and challenge the racism of the time with their unparalleled bravery and proficiency in the skies,” she said.

State Rep. Tammy Exum, whose husband Earl Exum worked before his sudden death to raise money and awareness for a permanent Tuskegee Airmen exhibit at the museum, said these pilots overcame incredible odds while displaying unparalleled skill in the cockpit.

“They were the original top gun pilots,” Exum said. “These pilots were actually the winners of the Air Force’s first-ever aerial top gun competition.”

The U.S. Air Force would acknowledge that victory seven decades later. During World War II, the Tuskegee Airmen shot down more than 100 enemy aircraft and destroyed more than 600 railroad cars and 40 barges and bridges, according to the U.S. Air Force.

The squadron’s legacy of bravery and its fight for equality still inspires today, Wilson Pheanious said.

“Their sacrifice made my success possible and our lives more free,” Wilson Pheanious said. “If not for their efforts, I might not have been raised in a world where my talent was recognized and awarded.”

“Their legacy shines in living color,” she added. “We will honor them – I hope always – on April 26th in Connecticut.”

Patrick Skahill is a reporter and digital editor at Connecticut Public. Prior to becoming a reporter, he was the founding producer of Connecticut Public Radio's The Colin McEnroe Show, which began in 2009. Patrick's reporting has appeared on NPR's Morning Edition, Here & Now, and All Things Considered. He has also reported for the Marketplace Morning Report. He can be reached at pskahill@ctpublic.org.

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