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Black Fighter Pilots Receive Nation’s Highest Honor

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Aired 4/19/09

Next week Bob Maxwell of Oceanside turns 85 years old. But today he'll receive an early birthday present. This country's highest honor bestowed upon a civilian –the Congressional Gold Medal.

Maxwell is among 300 surviving members of the Tuskegee Airmen--the nation's first black fighter pilots. He spoke with KPBS anchor Dwane Brown just before he left for Washington DC.

Maxwell: Well the congressional gold medal is different from the other awards. (edit) For example, the 332nd fighter group the individual fighter pilots got distinguish flying crosses...unit citations and various awards. But this award is different in that it will be to all of those who participated in what we call the Tuskegee experience.

That experience came at a time when this country was warring with itself. And the racial divide was mirrored in the military.  

Maxwell: Blacks were treated completely separate from whites. Even where you had them assigned to the same base, they would be in different companies so they would be housed separately. What was the reasoning? It stemmed back to slavery days -- you know?

Maxwell trained as a bomber pilot at the Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama. He still remembers the heroics of the "Red Tail" fighters and their claim to fame.

Maxwell: The 332nd bomber group flew over 200 escort missions and to the best of our knowledge never lost a bomber to enemy aircraft.

It's wasn't until the 1960's that the Civil Rights Movement caught fire in the U.S. But Maxwell believes the Tuskegee Airmen blazed the trial.

Maxwell: It led very directly we believe to the executive order that President Truman issued in 1948 -- Which broke down the barriers that insisted all the units of the military would be open regardless of race or gender.

Bob Maxwell is president of the local chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen based in Oceanside. The chapter has six members living in San Diego County. Three of them will be attending today's ceremony at the nation's capitol. And Bob Maxwell will have one more thing to be grateful for when he turns 85 next week -- a Congressional Gold Medal -- one of the nation's highest honors.

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