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Airmen segregated by race in World War II finally meet in Florida

From left, Lt. Dempsey W. Morgan, Lt. Carrol S. Woods, Lt. Robert H. Nelson Jr., Capt. Andrew D. Turner and Lt. Clarence D. Lester were pilots with the 332nd Fighter Group. The airmen were part of the all-black fighter group better known as the Tuskegee Airmen.

U.S. AIR FORCE FILE PHOTO

By PATRICK RILEY | Naples Daily News, Fla. (Tribune News Service) | Published: May 10, 2017

NAPLES, Fla. — Vernon "Bo" Sigo and George Hardy both served during World War II. They both flew countless missions over war-torn Europe, dodging flak and enemy planes. They both were stationed at military bases in Italy, about 25 miles from each other. There's a good chance they flew side by side at one point.

And yet, they were worlds apart.

Sigo, who is white, was a navigator in a heavy Boeing B-17 bomber.

Hardy, who is black, was a P-51 Mustang pilot and one of the legendary Tuskegee Airmen, the African-American pilots who often escorted and protected bombers, such as Sigo's, on their missions.

But though they fought for a common goal, their country and military demanded they be separated.

"In World War II, we were completely segregated," said Hardy, 91, who lives in Sarasota. "We rarely ever met a white pilot, because we were on separate bases. And segregation was the way it was."

When Sigo, 92, learned it was the Tuskegee Airmen who had protected him during his dozens of missions through enemy territory, he made it his goal to meet one and personally thank him.

He had to wait 72 years to do so, but on Tuesday, in front of a crowd of fellow veterans, schoolchildren and Naples officials and dignitaries at Cambier Park, Sigo finally got his wish.

"After the war, I found out those P-51s were flown by Tuskegee Airmen. It's been my hope that one day I could thank a Tuskegee airman personally for their service. Well, the day has come," Sigo said as he stood on the stage at the park. "Col. Hardy, I'm here today to thank you."

Then a handshake, a salute and a hug.

Tuesday's thank-you, more than seven decades in the making, was facilitated by Rick Wobbe, a community outreach volunteer for Collier County Honor Flight.

The nonprofit organization works to fly veterans — at no cost to them — to Washington, D.C., to visit the memorials dedicated in their honor. Their next trip is scheduled for Saturday.

When Wobbe met Sigo on an Honor Flight two years ago, the World War II veteran and Cape Coral resident told Wobbe about his desire to meet and thank one of the Tuskegee Airmen.

"He said, 'Before I die, I'd like to thank those guys. I've tried several times, but I just can't, you know, just can't do it,' " said Wobbe, a Vietnam War veteran.

What followed were two years of detective work and countless phone calls, emails and trips to Air Force bases from Alabama to Texas to Louisiana until finally, in February, Wobbe's phone rang.

"I looked at the ID and it said, 'Lt. Col. Hardy,' " Wobbe told the crowd at Cambier Park on Tuesday. "And it really shook me up, because I didn't know what to do. I was like a deer in the headlights. I have a real Tuskegee airman on the other line."

For Wobbe, Tuesday — with dozens of students from Gulfview Middle School iasking the two veterans questions, thanking them for their service and taking pictures with them — was as much about connecting two members of the "greatest generation" as it was about linking a younger generation to two heroes in the flesh.

"These guys are living, walking history," he said. "I want people to look at their next-door-neighbor — who is a World War II guy, a Korean War guy — I want them to recognize that these guys walked into flaming hot bullets for them."

It wasn't until after Sigo and Hardy returned from the war that President Harry Truman issued an executive order in 1948 desegregating the armed forces.

Hardy, who also served in the Korean and Vietnam wars, noted it was the military that led the way toward racial integration, even if took some longer than others to accept it.

"Segregation died ... in the military," Hardy said. "With some people, it died quickly, some it died slowly. But at least the military was the first big organization in this country to change. Thank goodness for that."

©2017 the Naples Daily News (Naples, Fla.)
Visit the Naples Daily News (Naples, Fla.) at www.naplesnews.com
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