Vindication for Tuskegee Airman; 6 Decades after They Were Formed, His Group Will Receive the Congressional Gold Medal Today

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Byline: JESSIE-LYNNE KERR

William Stockton Surcey of Jacksonville is among a special group of former American servicemen being granted a long-overdue honor at 1 p.m. today in Washington.

While he won't physically be in the Capitol Rotunda with President Bush and former Secretary of State Colin Powell, he will be there in spirit as about 300 of his former colleagues in the Tuskegee Airmen are presented with the Congressional Gold Medal more than six decades after the nation's first all-black unit in the Army Air Corps was formed.

The medal is the highest civilian award bestowed by Congress.

"I have mixed emotions," Surcey said, who recalled that while he was welcomed anywhere he went in Italy, he returned to a segregated South where people of color were denied equal opportunities.

Tears come to the 88-year-old's eyes when he recalls that his late brother, 2nd Lt. Wayman Surcey, who was a trained pilot, was offered a job picking up litter at the airport when he returned to civilian life in Jacksonville.

"They were heroes overseas, but not at home," said Ron Brewington, public relations officer for the Tuskegee Airmen Inc. "There was a lot of deep-rooted sentiment among the members and they feel extremely vindicated by getting this medal."

The success of the 99th Pursuit Squadron is believed to have influenced President Truman to direct the end of segregation in the U.S. military forces in 1948. Before 1940, African-Americans were barred from flying for the U.S. military and were denied military leadership roles.

But with another World War descending, the military decided to attempt to train blacks to fly and maintain combat aircraft. Alabama's Tuskegee Institute, a historically black college, was selected because of its commitment to aeronautical training and the fact that its climate was conducive to year-round flying.

Surcey, a Jacksonville native, had graduated from Old Stanton High School in 1939 and was in his second year at Tuskegee when he said Army Air Corps recruiters came to the college in 1941. He decided to enlist with the first group to help the nation test whether African-Americans were smart enough and daring enough to fly in combat. After a battery of tests, he was sent to Chanute Air Base in Illinois for six months to train as an aircraft mechanic.

The airfield at Tuskegee was not yet completed when his training was over, so Surcey was sent to Montgomery, Ala., for a few months until the field was ready.

"We were the first to occupy the field," he said, "and we found out we could do everything that was necessary to fly and maintain aircraft for combat."

He said he doubted that anyone in the Air Corps really believed the squadron was inferior to squadrons comprised of white aviators. …