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The Daily Tar Heel

Airmen Combat Isolation, Apathy

The black division of the Army Air Corps was established during World War II, when the U.S. forces were still segregated.

"When we came back from World War II, we didn't have a parade down Fifth Avenue," said retired Army 1st Lt. Wilson Eagleson.

"We were ignored. We all just got on a bus and went to our respective homes, and the white soldiers went on parade."

The Tuskegee Airmen trained near Tuskegee, Ala., and flew more than 15,000 combat missions over North Africa and Italy in World War II.

Eagleson, who fought in three foreign wars and earned a Purple Heart, was one of four panelists from the Wilson V. Eagleson Chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen Inc. who fielded questions in the ballroom of Shaw's Willie E. Gary Student Union.

The other panelists were Air Force Tech. Sgt. Leonard Hunter and Army 2nd Lt. Dr. John Driver, both retired, and Driver's wife, Lavon-De, historian of the Eagleson chapter.

The Shaw event, organized by the Beta Rho chapter of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity for Black History Month, was devoted to educating the public about a group of soldiers who feel they have not been given enough credit by an America still, in many ways, divided along racial lines -- more than 50 years after World War II ended.

"History has not been kind to them," Lavon-De Driver said of the pilots who destroyed more than 1,000 German aircraft.

"We do not consider this an Afro-American struggle," she said. "It was a struggle to protect this great country."

But Dr. John Driver, also a World War II veteran, contended, "Students today can't read about the Tuskegee Airmen in their history books."

Hunter, who served three tours of duty in Vietnam, recalled his own feelings of isolation after returning.

"When we came back from Vietnam, we weren't welcomed home, either," Hunter said, his eyes welling up and his voice cracking with emotion. "This nation didn't appreciate what we had done, even though they asked us to do it.

"That's why I feel a bond with the older airmen," he said. "I wasn't welcome home years after they weren't welcome home."

After the panelists fielded the last question, they received a lengthy standing ovation, followed by an impromptu shake-hands-and-hug session with most of the audience.

Rodney Poole, a 2000 Shaw graduate, was visibly moved by the event.

"Amazing. Very powerful," Poole said, shaking his head.

"It's one thing to read about history; it's another to actually see, hear, touch and interact with it."

The State & National Editor can be reached at stntdesk@unc.edu.

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