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Kentucky Designates I-75 'Tuskegee Airmen Memorial Trail'

Governor Steve Beshear Unveils Highway Sign Honoring America's First Black Airmen

Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear (D) (pictured, right) joined local leaders last Friday to unveil a sign designating the entire I-75 corridor in Kentucky as the ‘Tuskegee Airmen Memorial Trail’—a 191-mile stretch of highway from the Ohio to Tennessee borders.

“The Tuskegee Airmen revolutionized modern military standards by flying beyond enemy lines and racial boundaries,” Gov. Beshear said.  “These soldiers never let racism and bigotry ground their skill, heroism and patriotism.  We honor their brave commitment to the safety and freedom of our nation.”

House Joint Resolution 67, passed by the 2010 General Assembly, directed the memorial designation. Kentucky is the first and only state to install signs naming an entire interstate system in honor of the Tuskegee Airmen.  The resolution expands Senate Joint Resolution 93, passed by the 2007 General Assembly, which only included signage for Fayette County.

File Photo

“Naming the entire I-75 corridor is a great opportunity to recognize the sacrifices of the Tuskegee Airmen, who laid the foundation for freedom in the world and progress toward freedom at home.  They are true heroes who proved to be brave soldiers during World War II,” Sen. Kathy W. Stein, of Lexington, said.  "I was privileged to meet three of these heroes in the summer of 2008 when we had the opportunity to honor them at Applebee's Park.  They were gentlemen who wore the mantle of their trail-blazing role in desegregation of the armed forces honorably and humbly.  We also owe thanks to Ron Spriggs who has tirelessly promoted the need for our country to recognize the unprecedented role these men shouldered for all Americans."

The African-American aviators, who derived their name from their training at Tuskegee Army Airfield in Alabama in World War II, had to overcome the institutionalized racism of a segregated American military.

“The Tuskegee Airmen were dedicated, determined young men who volunteered to become Americas first black airmen,” Sen. Tom Buford, of Nicholasville, said.  “Today, Kentucky shows her appreciation to those who accepted a call to duty to make and preserve this freedom for the United States of America.”

The original group of Tuskegee Airmen included 11 Kentucky cadets. In addition, the commandant of the cadet pilot training program at Tuskegee, Col. Noel F. Parrish, was a native of Versailles, Ky.  Parrish was one of many white personnel assigned and identified as a Tuskegee Airman.

“Each Kentuckian should proudly celebrate this small token of our respect and appreciation for the Tuskegee Airmen; many of whose pilots, air crew and officers call the Blue Grass State home,” Rep. Reginald Meeks, of Louisville, said.  “Kentuckians have provided outstanding service and leadership in all branches of the military service, and the outstanding record of achievement established by the Tuskegee Airmen in the face of opposition at home and abroad is second to none.  I hope every Kentuckian, when they ride on Interstate 75 from the Ohio River to Jellico, does so with the recognition they are riding free on the wings and the sacrifice of the Tuskegee Airmen.”

Willa Beatrice Brown, an aviation pioneer who was born in Glasgow, KY, had a significant influence on the Tuskegee program by supplying many of its early cadets from her school of aviation in Chicago.

“Tuskegee Airmen were trailblazers in military aviation,” Rep. Bob Damron, of Nicholasville, said.  “Their service to America and the greater cause of civil rights deserves our praise and recognition, so I’m proud we could extend this honor.”

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There was another Kentucky connection in the naming of one of the airmen’s P51-D Mustangs – the “Miss Kentucky State.” Its crew chief, Staff Sgt. Marcellus Smith, of Louisville, KY, named the fighter in honor of a homecoming queen from Kentucky State University. This specific plane was one of the first of three planes flown by black pilots to defeat the enemy Me-262 jet in aerial combat during the final days of WWII.

“This historical announcement by Kentucky to boldly state its appreciation for those ‘Gladiators of the Skies,’ speaks volumes about what the airmen accomplished as a unit during the rages of war and the attitude of discrimination. Kentucky has raised the bar for others to follow their lead,” Ron Spriggs, executive director of the Ron Spriggs Exhibit of Tuskegee Airmen Inc., said.  “The Tuskegee Airmen overcame many obstacles and adverse conditions.  By their sustained performance, proved then as it does today, what a determined spirit will do for all that give it their best.”

The saga of the Tuskegee Airmen began in July 1941, when 13 cadets entered training at Tuskegee Army Air Field. After nine months of training, five were commissioned as officers and received Army Air Corps silver pilot wings.

From 1942 to 1946, nearly 1,000 pilots graduated from the Tuskegee program and received commissions and pilot wings.  During this time, 381 Tuskegee aviators served overseas. The 332nd Fighter Group comprised initially of the 99th Pursuit Squadron saw combat in North Africa, Italy and Sicily.  Although they did not see action during WWII, other pilots were trained as B-25 pilots for the 477th Bomber Group.

File Photo

The Tuskegee Airmen also created opportunities for African-Americans who trained in an array of support specialties. The sign unveiling today recognized not only the air crew but also the invaluable contributions of nearly 14,000 ground support personnel.



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