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Work on Tuskegee Airmen tribute in Sewickley finally to begin in June

| Thursday, May 16, 2013, 10:47 a.m.
Heidi Murrin | Tribune-Review
Showcasing a rendering of the Tuskegee Airmen Memorial on Saturday are (from left) historian and memorial organizer Regis Bobonis Sr. of Sewickley; Newt Smith II of Hampton; Virginia (here in honor of his father, Calvin Smith of Beaver Falls, who was a Tuskegee Airman); J. Scott Wendt, president of the Sewickley Cemetery Board; and Wendell Freeland of Shadyside, a bombardier with the 477th Bomber Group. The cemetery donated some of its land for the memorial. It should be completed by mid-August.
This closeup depicts the Tuskegee Airmen Memorial of the Greater Pittsburgh Region that will be constructed in Sewickley Cemetery by mid-August 2013.

Funding and lack of a contractor delayed construction two years on the largest outdoor memorial in the country to Tuskegee Airmen, but those problems appear to be resolved, officials said.

Tuskegee Airmen became the military's first black pilots during World War II, but the group also included navigators, bombardiers, instructors and maintenance and support staff.

A memorial in Sewickley Cemetery to honor local airmen will be built starting in June, and completed before a planned Sept. 15 dedication ceremony, said project consultant Rich Dieter, president of Robinson-based Crescendo Group Consultants Inc.

So far, organizers have raised $200,000 of the projected $255,000 cost of the memorial, Dieter said.

A golf outing May 28 at Diamond Run Golf Club in Sewickley could put the Tuskegee Airmen Memorial of the Greater Pittsburgh Region Inc. almost at its goal, said Ronald Hunt of Franklin Park, chairman for the event and a founding trustee of the memorial group. His father, William Hunt, was a crew chief with the Tuskegee Airmen.

More Tuskegee Airmen came from Western Pennsylvania than any other region, said Regis Bobonis Sr., project chairman.

“That said to us that … we should create a living legacy to these men who created such an exciting chapter in aviation history,” he said.

The Tuskegee Airmen Memorial will be built on an 850-square-foot plaza donated by Sewickley Cemetery.

It will include four mourning benches, a large center monument with a bronze relief with images of airmen and a 10-foot-high granite monument with a granite red tail, a salute to the red-painted tails of the airmen's fighter planes, Dieter said.

On each side of the monument will be a tower with the engraved names of the airmen from Western Pennsylvania, Dieter said.

“We're looking at 96,” Bobonis said.

Beaver Falls resident Calvin Smith's name will be among them.

“I appreciate it. It lets people know a bit more of what happened,” said Smith 88, who was a bombardier and second lieutenant with the 477th Bombardment Group.

A ceremonial groundbreaking for the memorial took place in November 2011. Organizers planned to start construction in 2011 and again last summer, but had trouble finding a concrete contractor last year and raising money.

“My theory is, for very large companies, the job was too small. For very small companies, I think they were somewhat dissuaded by a lot of the rules and regulations required when you get county money,” said Dieter. Allegheny County provided a $100,000 grant.

Of the six bids that project organizers received after soliciting requests for proposals last fall and in February, only one company was able to meet county regulations, including one requiring contractors to pay prevailing wages, Dieter said.

He declined to name the company because a contract had not been signed yet. Rochester-based Rome Monument designed the memorial, he said.

There were 2,483 pilot trainees who participated in what was officially known as the “Tuskegee Experience” at Moton Field and Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama from July 19, 1941, to June 28, 1946, according to Tuskegee University.

Of the 996 pilots who graduated, 352 went overseas for combat duty.

Their performance helped pave the way for desegregation of the military, according to the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site.

Tory N. Parrish is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-5662 or tparrish@tribweb.com.

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