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Ex-bombardier: Tuskegee Airmen aided change

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Wednesday, Feb. 29, 2012

Wendell Freeland's service as a Tuskegee Airman left an indelible mark on more than military history, he said.

"It was the bridge to civil rights," said the Shadyside resident, 87, formerly a bombardier with the Tuskegee Airmen, who during World War II became the military's first black pilots. The Tuskegee Airmen included navigators and support staff.

On Tuesday, Freeland spoke as a panelist at Penn Hills High School, part of a videoconference with seven other Tuskegee Airmen, descendents and historians at nine schools in cities including Dallas, Minneapolis and Columbus, Ohio. An additional 122 schools registered to show the event online to their students, who asked questions in a chat room.

The airmen discussed their entry into the military, training and their treatment under segregation, which was worse in the United States than in Europe, even Germany, some said.

Freeland was drafted in 1943 while attending Howard University in Washington. A former flight officer, he told students that despite racism, he strove for excellence and to defeat Hitler.

"So my views were worldwide and not so much to protect the United States, but to destroy the fascists," said Freeland, a Pittsburgh lawyer and civil rights activist.

The airmen's legacy is highlighted by the recent movie "Red Tails," named for the color painted on their aircraft. Although some critics say the movie is simplistic, some panelists said it tells history that many Americans don't know.

"(The film) was a long time coming. It should have been made many, many years ago," said retired Air Force Senior Master Sgt. Timothy McCray, 82, a Penn Hills resident. He is considered an "honorary airman;" he served under a Tuskegee Airman, 2nd Lt. George "Spanky" Roberts.

Cadet Commanding Officer Cassandra Gates, 18, of Penn Hills High School's Navy Junior ROTC program said she studied the Tuskegee Airmen in her modern American history class.

"They faced discrimination but were proud to be part of our history," she said.

Penn Hills organized the event with Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum in Oakland, the Allegheny Intermediate Unit in Homestead and the Daniel B. Matthews Historical Society of Sewickley.

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