"I'm humbled to be in your presence," said Maj. Gen. Jessica Wright, commander of the Pennsylvania National Guard. "I am in awe of your experiences, your accomplishments, your skills and your bravery."
"I very, very seldom get humbled," said U.S. Rep. Robert A. Brady (D., Pa). "I probably shouldn't be sitting on the stage when you great men are sitting down there."
And U.S. Rep. Curt Weldon (R., Pa.) said: "These brave men didn't go through life complaining; they decided they were going to make a difference. . . . In the end, there is no better example of what America is all about than the Tuskegee Airmen."
Their story is inspiring. Frustrated at being prevented by segregation from playing a significant role in the war, young black men began training as fighter pilots in 1941 in Tuskegee, Ala. In June 1944, with demand high for pilots to fly bomber escorts over Europe, they got their chance.
It didn't take long for bomber pilots to begin requesting the famed "Red Tail" Mustangs as escorts. From June 1944 to May 1945, the Tuskegee Airmen flew 200 missions without losing a single bomber to German fighters.
Now, the Pennsylvania Veterans Museum, which opened in November in Media, has embarked upon an ambitious education program "that enables students to learn about World War II from those who served."
The film, with accompanying lesson plans available online, is designed for grades five through 11. In tests of the material, said Joanna Murphy, museum executive director, "we've gotten extremely positive feedback. Teachers are finding ways to use it, even in English and arts and humanities. It's new material; it's fresh."
The museum, which owes its existence in a large part to Media Mayor Bob McMahon, has plans for four educational films. Murphy said that Band of Brothers, a book and later an HBO miniseries, was going to be the first until museum officials met Capt. Smith, who lives in Villanova. "This guy is so great," Murphy said. He has so much to say. I think McGee, Archer and Luther draw you in. You can't get enough."
Smith, severely injured when forced to bail out of his plane on a Friday the 13th in 1945, recalled the opportunity the "Tuskegee Experience" offered:
"We were very happy to be in the Tuskegee Airmen, to be in the Air Force, segregated but equal," he said, leaning on two canes. "We were treated well. We learned everything everybody else did, and that was proven when integration finally came about in 1949. We moved in with the rest of the Air Force in a seamless transition."
Other Tuskegee Airmen at the screening were Eugene Richardson, James Williams, Bertram Levy, Bernard Proctor, John Harrison and Benjamin Callaway, of the Philadelphia chapter, and Melvin Jackson and Bill Peterson.
Contact staff writer Jeff Price at 610-313-8124 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Pennsylvania Veterans Museum documentary "On Freedom's Wings: Bound for Glory, The Legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen" can be purchased by contacting the Media museum at 610-566-0788.
Flexible lesson plans based on the film devised by state-certified teachers are available on the museum's Web site, http://www.paveteransmuseum.org/education.html. The museum said teachers are free to design their own lessons.
The lesson of the film is that "the Tuskegee Airmen contributed significantly to the achievement of racial equality in the United States and helped change the face of the military in a remarkably short period of time."