WALTERBORO, S.C. (AP) — Eugene Richardson Jr. spent his Memorial Day at the Walterboro Airfield where 52 years ago he was the pilot of a P-51 Mustang — one of the Tuskegee Airmen who broke military aviation’s color barrier.
“The control tower was over there and our hangar used to be here,” he said, pointing around the old Army Air Base about 50 miles west of Charleston. “They’re all gone now.
“But this more than makes up for that loss,” he said, turning to the bronze bust and concrete monument dedicated to him and his fellow aviators who made up one of the most respected squadrons of World War II.
It’s only the second monument in the country to the Tuskegee Airmen, said Richardson, of Philadelphia, one of more than a dozen veterans of the segregated unit who attended Monday’s dedication.
Another monument stands at the Air Force Academy in Colorado. And there are plaques in their honor at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia and at their original base in Tuskegee, Ala.
“This is wonderful,” Richardson said. “I thought I would never see the day that something like this would go up in South Carolina, of all the places.”
Racism was rampant in South Carolina in those days, the black pilots said. German and Italian war prisoners held at the base were treated better back in 1944, said retired Lt. Col. Hiram Mann, 76, of Titusville, Fla.
“On the weekend, the chamber of commerce and the fraternal organizations would take the Germans and Italians into town for recreation in places the black military could not go,” said Mann. “That was kind of unsettling. No, that was very unsettling.”
One Tuskegee airman, Charles Dryden, got so frustrated that he flew mock strafing runs over the city with his P-38 fighter. He was drummed out of the service, but said he is glad to see the monument in Walterboro now.
“It is significant because the town that was so hostile to us back then is now apologizing for what they did to us American patriots,” Dryden said.
Gov. David Beasley on Monday gave the black pilots and one of their white trainers, retired Capt. John Truluck of Walterboro, the Order of the Palmetto, which is the state’s highest civilian honor.
“The Tuskegee Airmen proved beyond any doubt that courage and patriotism are convictions of the heart, and heroes come in many colors,” Beasley said.
Many of the 1,000 Tuskegee Airmen got their flight training in Walterboro in 1943-44 after classroom instruction in Alabama.
The black pilots flew a total of 1,578 missions. Sixty-six were killed in action and 32 were taken prisoner, but they never lost any of the aircraft they escorted across hostile territory. Despite the racism of the time, white bomber crews began requesting the black pilots as escorts.
After the black pilots proved themselves, Nasby Wynn, 73, of Sarasota, Fla., went on to become a bomber pilot. He said he had no regrets about returning to South Carolina.
“Things aren’t what they should be now, we don’t know what it’s going to be like in the future, but it’s a hell of a lot better than it was in the past,” Wynn said.