Special honor: Stretch of I-65 renamed to recognize Tuskegee Airmen

Those who drive on Interstate 65 through Bartholomew County will be reminded that America’s first African-American aviators and their support staff prepared for war here, while fighting for equality at home.

Beginning Friday, highway signs designated the stretch of the interstate from Seymour to the Bartholomew County/Johnson County line as the Tuskegee Airmen Highway in honor of the aviators, some who trained during World War II at Atterbury Air Force Base in Columbus and Freeman Field in Seymour.

Faye McDaniel, wife of the late Lt. Col. Armour G. McDaniel, a Tuskegee Airman who served as the 332nd Group Operations Officer, said her husband would have been proud of the reason for Friday’s ceremony at a hangar at the Columbus Municipal Airport.

“He always wanted to be a pilot,” she said of her husband, who died in 1989 and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C. “He used to tell me that when he flew, he felt like he was in heaven,” she said.

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McDaniel said she met her husband after World War II and knew he had served as a pilot, but later heard the stories of the Tuskegee Airmen, who flew more than 15,000 missions in the war and were honored with a Congressional Gold Medal in 1977.

The aviators, officially known as the 477th Bombardment Group, included 450 black pilots who fought aerial war over North Africa, Sicily and Europe.

Ninety-five of the 450 Tuskegee pilots won the Distinguished Flying Cross — and McDaniel himself, as operations officer, led the longest fighter escort mission to Berlin, where he had an aerial combat victory and later became a prisoner of war. McDaniel, a Hoosier transplant, would go on to found the Indianapolis Chapter of Tuskegee Airmen in 1985, which led the effort to have a highway named for the airmen.

As part of the ribbon-cutting ceremonies, Faye McDaniel was surrounded by members of the military and government officials as she cut the ribbon for the highway. With family in Tennessee, she said she is familiar with the stretch of I-65 near Columbus that has been renamed and will be grateful each time she travels through.

The Indianapolis chapter worked with Indiana House Rep. Gregory Porter, D-Indianapolis, and a host of other legislators to create Indiana House Concurrent Resolution No. 56, renaming the interstate in honor of the aviators.

Porter said he started working with the Indianapolis chapter just over a year ago, and so many legislators asked to sign on, that some were disappointed they didn’t get their names on the resolution as co-sponsors in time.

The stretch of interstate between Seymour and north through Bartholomew County was chosen because it represented the area in Indiana where some of the aviators trained, and where many of the Indiana connections were created, Porter said.

Reginald DuValle, current president of the Indianapolis Tuskegee Airmen chapter, earlier described the aviators’ time in Indiana as one of trying to win a “double victory,” one against fascism overseas, and the other against racism at home.

During Friday’s ceremonies, DuValle and members of the military noted that the first tentative steps of the civil rights movement occurred through the actions of the Tuskegee Airmen, who were part of the Freeman Field Mutiny in which more than 100 officers were arrested for refusing to sign an order preventing them from going to the whites-only officers club.

Brig. Gen. Jeffery Hauser, commander of the Indiana Air Guard, said it was important to acknowledge the Tuskegee aviators’ example of perseverance and courage and the personal sacrifice as they broke barriers to African-Americans serving in the military as pilots.

“They are recognized as part of the birth of the civil rights movement,” he said. “They overcame all of the obstacles that were put before them and there were plenty at the time.”

A display table near the ceremony provided information about what the aviators faced, from perceptions that they didn’t have the skill to become combat pilots to the painful treatment received at home from their fellow citizens, who preferred that they remain separate from whites.

Janice Palmer-Carter of Indianapolis, daughter of Tuskegee Airman Walter J. Palmer, who flew 158 missions in a P-51 Mustang, said her father experienced segregation when he was given his train ticket in New York and sent to Tuskegee for training as a pilot. As he traveled south, he was told to get off the train and go to the back car, rather than ride in his assigned car.

“He refused, telling them the government had given him a first class ticket and he planned to use it,” his daughter said. The train engineers ended up adding another car to the train for the black aviators, but it was a taste of what was to come.

Palmer-Carter said growing up, she always knew her father had been part of the Tuskegee legend, and she thought everyone knew. But when she wrote about her father’s experiences in one of her middle school papers in the 1950s, she received a failing grade because her teacher refused to believe what she had written, she said.

“I had to drag my dad into school to refute writing a fictitious paper,” she said, something that fuels her activities today with the Indianapolis chapter to tell the Tuskegee Airmen story to new generations who may not know what the aviators did.

“I didn’t know growing up that my dad was famous,” she said. “I just knew he was my dad.”

The family donated Palmer’s flight suit and gear to the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., where it is on display, with Palmer’s signature on the front of his vest. A photo of the exhibit travels with the Indianapolis chapter on presentations, and Palmer-Carter got a chance to see her father’s flight gear when she went to President Obama’s inauguration in 2008.

Although Palmer died in 2009, his daughter says she knows he is still with the family — her sons, grandsons and her brother bear a resemblance to the aviator. “He hasn’t gone far,” she said.

Palmer-Carter remembers fondly that the U.S. gave her father one final tribute after his death — the Air Force and the Army sent a delegation to play taps at his funeral in New York.

“They didn’t forget,” she said.

While Friday’s ceremonies were for the entire group of aviators, organizers made sure to connect the multiple Indiana highlights to the Tuskegee Airmen story.

Among them:

  • Charles H. DeBow, an Indianapolis native, was among the first class of Tuskegee Advance Flying School graduates on March 7, 1942. Twenty nine Hoosiers graduated from the school.
  • Charles B. Hall of Brazil was the first African-American aviator to have an aerial victory. Two airmen with Indiana connections had combat victories in addition to Hall — Palmer and McDaniel. Palmer flew the most combat missions among the Tuskegee Airmen.
  • Capt. Willard B. Ransom of Indianapolis was a Harvard Law School graduate who integrated the Tuskeegee Army Air Field Post Exchange Restaurant in 1944.
  • Theodore Randal of Indianapolis served as commander of the 320th College Training Detachment.
  • Indiana’s Dr. Lewis Jackson directed the first two phases of flight training all airmen had to complete before entering advance flight training school.
  • Gary native Quinton P. Smith and Indianapolis’ Ario Dixione were arrested in the Freeman Field Mutiny, and Indianapolis natives Louis G. Hill Jr. and George L. Knox II, and Terre Haute native John J. Suggs were part of the Tuskegee group at Freeman at the time of the protest.

Hauser and DuValle encouraged those who didn’t know about Indiana’s connection to the Tuskegee Airmen to take the time to read about their accomplishments and learn more about their sacrifices and courage.

“It’s a wonderful feeling,” McDaniel said after watching the ceremony and cutting the ribbon officially designating the highway as the Tuskegee Airmen Highway and honoring her husband.

“I’m sure he’s looking down from heaven right now,” she said.

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Although many think of the 1950s and ’60s as the era of the civil rights movement in the U.S., members of the 477th Bombardment Group — officers of the Tuskegee Airmen — were fighting for their civil rights in the 1940s in Seymour while preparing to battle the Nazis and Japanese during World War II.

Their efforts to integrate the all-white instructors or officers club at what is now Freeman Municipal Airport in April 1945 became known as the Freeman Field Mutiny.

The mutiny was a series of incidents at Freeman Army Airfield, which was built and activated in 1942 as a U.S. Army Air Forces base to train pilots for the war.

Their actions brought the arrests of 162 black officers, some of them twice. Three of the servicemen were court-martialed, resulting in one conviction, according to military records and reports.

News about the incident forced military officials to reassess institutional racism, with orders issued at other bases rescinding any whites-only policies. In 1948, President Harry S Truman signed orders integrating all branches of the U.S. military.

In 1995, the Air Force officially set aside the single conviction and removed letters of reprimand from the permanent files of 15 of the officers involved.

The Tuskegee Airmen were America’s first black military pilots. Those who trained at Freeman Field were deployed first to Africa and then to Italy.

They became known for the red-tailed P-51C Mustang fighter planes they flew. The pilots’ history was recalled in the 2012 movie “Red Tails.”

— Information from the Seymour Tribune

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The signs noting the section of Interstate 65 as the Tuskegee Airmen Highway are located at mile marker 50 near Seymour and mile marker 79.5 at the Bartholomew/Johnson County line.

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To learn more about the Tuskegee Airmen, visit tuskegeeairmen.org/.