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SEWICKLEY, PA. — Men from western Pennsylvania who served in the all-black Tuskegee Airmen unit during World War II are now honored on a new monument in Allegheny County, billed as the country’s largest outdoor monument commemorating the barrier-breaking group.
Hundreds gathered at Sewickley Cemetery for Sunday’s unveiling of the memorial, where the names of about 100 western Pennsylvania members of the 332nd Fighter Group of the U.S Army Air Corps are carved into two flanking towers. Two others relate the history and the soldiers’ struggle against discriminatory laws at home and segregation in the military to become trailblazers fighting for equality.
On a central tower above sits a red granite sculpture of an airplane tail, a reference to the unit’s nickname, “Red Tails.”
More than 900 pilots trained at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama and about a third escorted bombers in the war’s European theater, disproving the notion that black pilots were inferior to whites.
James Cotton, 86, one of six veterans present, said he always knew his role mattered, even though he drew little attention in the first few decades after the war.
“I felt as though I was doing something that was life-changing and earth-inspiring,” he said.
Cotton was kept busy with autograph requests from the approximately 500 people who attended, as was Dr. Robert Higginbotham, 87, a Sewickley native and Tuskegee-trained soldier who also served in Korea.
“The crowd embraced us the way we should be embraced,” Higginbotham said. “I still love this country.”
Air Force Brig. Gen. Leon Johnson told the crowd that the unit lives on, flying missions in the Middle East and aiding the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq.
“The spirit of the Tuskegee Airmen units is alive and well,” said Gen. Johnson, who heads a nonprofit that promotes the unit’s history. “The Tuskegee Airmen today are doing what the Tuskegee Airmen did in World War II.”