Largest outdoor monument to Tuskegee Airmen unveiled in Sewickley, Pa.
SEWICKLEY, Pa. — Everyone wanted James Cotten's autograph. He signed it again and again, on countless programs and scraps of paper, stooping once to use his knee as a writing desk.
He had to laugh a little. It was certainly more celebrity than the pilot had ever seen during the first few decades following World War II, after the all-black Tuskegee Airmen showed a segregated Air Force that color had nothing to do with flying ability. Back then, they were given their discharge papers and told to shut up.
But as the 86-year-old looked on Sunday while officials unveiled a memorial in Sewickley Cemetery honoring the unit, he said he always knew the truth in his heart.
"I felt as though I was doing something that was life-changing and earth-inspiring," he said.
About 500 people joined Mr. Cotten and his fellow veterans at the dedication, debuting a granite-and-brass memorial that is the United States' largest outdoor monument to the airmen. Carved into two flanking towers are the names of about a hundred Tuskegee service members from Western Pennsylvania, which was home to the largest geographic contingent in the unit.
Atop the memorial's central tower sits an airplane tail sculpted from a block of red granite, a nod to the "Red Tails," the unit's nickname.
Speaking to the crowd — and to dozens of representatives from motorcycle clubs who lined their bikes at the crest of an overlooking hill — Air Force Brig. Gen. Leon Johnson said the unit still lives on, flying missions in the Middle East and presiding over the exit of U.S. forces from Iraq.
"The spirit of the Tuskegee Airmen units is alive and well," said Gen. Johnson, who heads a nonprofit that promotes the unit's history. "The Tuskegee Airmen today are doing what the Tuskegee Airmen did in World War II."
He was joined by several local and state officials, as well as organizers who worked for years to bring to monument to Sewickley, including former Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter Regis D. Bobonis Sr.
Many of the folks in attendance were black veterans themselves or their children. As speeches drew to a close, crowds clustered around the monument, picking out the names of family members. Everyone wanted a picture with an airman.
And following the lead of Mr. Bobonis, who exhorted the crowd to remember that what the Tuskegee units accomplished affects lives to this day, many reminisced about the shared sacrifice of military service and a thank-you long overdue.
Percy Hogan of Sewickley came with his 92-year-old father-in-law, who served in World War II. A veteran himself, Mr. Hogan holds the Tuskegee Airmen as personal heroes and is glad they're finally getting their due, both nationally and in Pittsburgh.
"It's been a long time coming," he said. "I hope it brings us together."