When Joan Williams learned there would, at long last, be a Congressional Gold Medal ceremony in Washington honoring the Tuskegee Airmen of World War II, it was almost too late.
Williams, whose late husband, Robert, flew 51 missions with the famed pilots and wrote the story that brought their courage and tenacity to a wide audience, was left off the invitation list. She wasn’t alone. Many other widows and family members of airmen were similarly slighted.
I’ll argue that without Robert Williams’ Peabody Award-winning HBO movie, “The Tuskegee Airmen,” there would have been no ceremony honoring the proud legacy of America’s first black fighter pilots. It’s a safe bet most Americans, including some holding elected office in Washington, only learned of the existence of the Tuskegee Airmen through that movie.
Joan Williams didn’t wait for an apology. Instead, the Pasadena, Calif., resident secured an invitation and booked a flight to the nation’s capital.
She experienced great pride and great disappointment that day. She was proud because the long-overdue national recognition had finally come. She was dismayed by the insensitivity present in the ceremony itself, which provided a photo opportunity for politicians and generated headlines and television coverage from coast to coast.
The federal government, which can waste billions before breakfast, came up short yet again for the Tuskegee Airmen.
Much was made of the announcement that a gold medal honoring the pilots was on its way to the Smithsonian, but officials turned downright stingy when it came to presenting the bronze commemorative medals to the airmen and their survivors. The pilots, some in wheelchairs and using oxygen bottles, who managed to make it to the ceremony were handed a medal. An anonymous donor paid for some, but there weren’t nearly enough medals to go around. Only a few lucky golden ticket-holders received the bronze replicas.
Not only was Robert Williams’ widow denied a medal or certificate, but they were told anyone interested in purchasing one could do so through the U.S. Mint for $38 plus $4.95 for shipping and handling. She was stunned at the insult.
“My thoughts are, it was bittersweet,” Williams, 74, says. “It was 60 years late. I was glad that it finally took place. But the fact they didn’t have medals for all those families, it just didn’t sit very well.”
The family of Tuskegee Airman Lewis Lynch was equally floored by the insensitivity. Lynch, who flew 42 combat missions in Europe, was on his deathbed in a St. Louis hospice and was unable to attend the ceremony. His son, David Lynch, left his father’s bedside and raced to Washington to receive the medal in hopes of placing it in his father’s hand. But he didn’t get one and was barely able to gain entry into the ceremony.
Instead, the family improvised a power-point presentation before their father died last week at age 84.
“Outrageous is the word that comes to my mind,” says Lynch’s daughter, Susan Beaubian Falcone of Las Vegas. “It would have been really nice to press a medal into my father’s hand.”
Adds daughter Robin Lynch, “You’re making up for an injustice, so why not do it right?”
David Lynch says only his persistence kept him from being ushered into the back of the ceremony despite repeatedly pleading for understanding of the time-sensitivity of his request.
“One foot to the wrong side of the rope, and I wouldn’t even have been in the rotunda,” he says. “It was a day that made me proud beyond words. It was a long-overdue acknowledgment and recognition of some guys who made huge sacrifices and on whose shoulders we really climbed. It was a day I think my dad was able to enjoy vicariously.
“To almost the same extent that I felt that joy, I was just so heartbroken to see people in the line who thought it was the line to receive the replicas of the medals.”
What would it have cost, a few pennies, or at most a couple bucks, for each medal?
The government that wastes your grandchildren’s future on endless pork project boondoggles and carves out tax breaks for oil cartels can’t spare $38 retail for each of the Tuskegee Airmen and their immediate families?
It would have bought a lot of goodwill, and showed a little class.
John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call 383-0295.JOHN L. SMITHMORE COLUMNSDiscuss this column in the eForums!