3 names added to Tuskegee Airmen Memorial in Pennsylvania
By JASON CATO | The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (Tribune News Service) | Published: April 25, 2015
James R. “Wink” Simmons spent part of World War II in the Balkans, North Africa and behind Russian lines. His exploits had him climb Mt. Vesuvius, fly over Paris at night in a stolen plane and attend night Mass at the Vatican.
Coming down the stairs during a visit was Pope Pius XII and his entourage. People knelt, prayed and kissed the papal ring. The pope spoke to each person in his or her language.
When it was his turn, Simmons thrust out his hand.
“Private James Simmons, Monongahela, Pennsylvania,” the soldier barked.
“Where is that?” the pope responded.
Simmons and two members of a heralded air squadron were inducted Saturday into the Tuskegee Airmen Memorial of the Greater Pittsburgh Region in Sewickley Cemetery. Honored were Lt. Martin M. Law of Donora and Sgt. Howard A. Tibbs of Salem, Ohio. All three men are deceased.
About 70 people, including family members and veterans, attended the ceremony.
“My grandfather, like many of these men, came back from the war and didn't talk about it,” said Troy Simmons, 39, of South Orange, N.J. “If they were here, they would tell you that they were just trying to do their jobs. And a large part of that was staying alive and coming back.”
The $300,000 memorial, the largest outdoor monument for Tuskegee Airmen in the country, opened in September 2013.
It features four mourning benches, a bronze relief of Western Pennsylvania airmen and a monument with an airplane tail sculpted from red granite flanked by two towers etched with 85 names of pilots, bombardiers, navigators and support crew from across the region.
Law, Simmons and Tibbs make Nos. 86, 87 and 88.
One day, the monuments could memorialize more than 100 men who hailed from Pittsburgh and across Western Pennsylvania.
“We have a pool that we are double-checking. We are still looking for names and getting them verified,” said Regis Bobonis Sr. of Sewickley, 89, senior founder and chairman of the memorial.
Western Pennsylvania set the record with 55 Tuskegee Airmen having roots here, Bobonis said.
“So you can imagine an extraordinary number of men came out of Western Pennsylvania,” he said. “This is a great part of history. This is a great group of men and a source of pride for our region.”
During World War II, the group became the first black pilots in American armed forces history.
The squadron served mainly in the Army Air Forces' 332nd Pursuit Group but also in the 447th Bombardment Group.
The Tuskegee name came from an all-black flight training program the Army established in Tuskegee, Ala. The group earned its nickname “Red Tails” from the paint on its signature P-51 Mustang fighter planes.
The Tuskegee Airmen earned more than 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses and 714 Silver and Gold Cluster Air Medals. In 2007, President George W. Bush and Congress honored 350 Tuskegee Airmen and their families with the Congressional Gold Medal, the most prestigious award Congress can bestow.
Blacks and others who endured less than full citizenship status but who fought for the United States in the Civil War and other conflicts need to be recognized, said Tibbs' son, Philip Tibbs, 58, of Newark, Ohio.
“However we consider ourselves, we are of one race,” he said. “And that is the human race.”
A field commander gave Law the nickname “Johnny Come Lately,” said his daughter, Iris Law Ivey, 57, of Atlanta. Law bounced around bases before landing at the Tuskegee training camp. The war ended before he reported to Europe.
Though he never flew a mission, Ivey said, her father's love of his squadron and flying never waned. He owned two airplanes, belonged to a flying club and served as commander of the Donora Civil Air Patrol.
“My father loved flying. We spent many a Sunday afternoon in the air,” she said. “And he was so proud of the Tuskegee Airmen.”
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