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October 25, 2011 > Tuskegee Airmen museum, one step closer

Tuskegee Airmen museum, one step closer

By Simon Wong

A Hayward-based museum telling the story of the service and commitment of the Tuskegee Airmen is a step closer as administrative details are put in place to return the California Air National Guard (CAANG) site to the City of Hayward and its proposed redevelopment.

The US Government has leased 27 acres on West Winton Avenue from the city since 1949 for use by the CAANG and US Air Force. The lease ($1 per annum for the space) expires on June 30, 2014. The CAANG has not used the site since 2008.

Hayward Executive Airport staff met with CAANG representatives and their environmental consultants in 2009 to discuss the property's return and the need to mitigate contamination as per state and federal regulations. In June 2010, the National Guard Bureau agreed to return 24 acres to the city, remediate all CAANG contamination and requested unobstructed access, which Hayward City Council granted on October 18, 2011, to the site to facilitate clean-up which is expected to take four years. The Army National Guard occupies three acres and will remain in situ.

Hayward Airport Development LLC will redevelop the site in stages. Phase 1 will include renovation of the large CAANG hangar and immediate ramp area and installation of a fire suppression system. Subsequent phases are expected to last five years and will entail construction of additional hangars and small commercial buildings along the West Winton Avenue frontage. Additional property tax revenue will benefit the city's General Fund; the Airport anticipates extra ground lease revenue.

Phase 1 will also provide between 2,800 sq. ft. and 3,000 sq. ft., possibly as soon as late 2012, at the rear of the CAANG hangar for the Tuskegee Airmen Museum.

"Tuskegee Airmen" is the popular name for all who were involved in the "Tuskegee Experiment," the Army Air Corps program to train African Americans to fly and maintain combat aircraft during World War II. The Tuskegee Airmen included pilots, navigators, bombardiers, maintenance and support staff, instructors and all personnel who kept the planes in the air.

They were the first African American fighter pilots in the US armed services and trained and flew with distinction when Jim Crow laws still existed. They faced racial discrimination within and outside the military. The American bomber crews they protected nicknamed them the "Fighting Red Tail Angels" when they painted the tails of their Republic P-47 Thunderbolts planes red. The Germans feared and knew them as Schwartze Vogelmenschen (Black Birdmen).

Racial segregation in the US military forced a total of 992 black military aviators to train at an isolated, specially constructed army airfield near Tuskegee, Alabama, and at the Tuskegee Institute from 1941 to 1946. On March 19, 1941, the 99th Pursuit Squadron (later designated a fighter squadron), was formed; the first cadre consisted of enlisted technical and administrative specialists who had trained at the US Army Air Corps Technical Training School at Chanute Field, Rantoul, Illinois. They established a superior grade point average during their training between April and November 1941.

The 99th Fighter Squadron, already distinguished by its impressive combat record over North Africa, Sicily, Italy and the Anzio beachhead, was joined by the 100th, 301st, and 302nd Fighter Squadrons, comprising the 332nd Fighter Group.

The Tuskegee Airmen, who overcame segregation and prejudice to fight racism and intolerance in Europe and become one of the most highly respected fighter groups of World War II, flew more than 200 missions as fighter escort on long-range bombing raids. They never lost a bomber to enemy fighters. They flew 15,533 combat sorties and destroyed more than 600 enemy aircraft. Of the 992 black aviators trained at Tuskegee Army Airfield, 66 died in combat and 32 were taken as prisoners of war in Germany.

Not only did they prove African Americans could fly and maintain complex aircraft, their distinguished service, coupled with the actions of those who supported them, led to eventual desegregation within the US military starting with President Harry S. Truman's Executive Order 9981 in 1948.

"The space to be occupied by the Tuskegee Airmen Museum will need some work. A R&D committee is being established to explore funding and source exhibits. It will meet shortly. At this stage, it has not been decided if there will be an admission fee or if we might encourage donations from visitors once the museum opens," stated Ben L. Henderson, Executive Director, East Bay Aviators, Inc. "The museum, itself, will be dedicated to former Hayward resident and Tuskegee Airman Leon "Woodie" Spears who passed away in May 2008, aged 84."

The new museum will be the first on the west coast devoted to preservation of the memory and accomplishments of the Tuskegee Airmen. It will not inform visitors about a black or a white story but about an American story from which invaluable lessons were learned.

For more information, sponsorship opportunities, how to donate or provide exhibits, contact The Tuskegee Airmen Museum Committee, 22655 Skywest Drive, Hayward, CA 94541, call (510) 259-1062 or email

Many military and aviation museums across the nation have a room or corner of a World War II exhibit that mentions the Tuskegee Airmen but few are devoted entirely to the Tuskegee Airmen story:

Tuskegee Airmen National Historical Museum, Detroit, Michigan

Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site, Tuskegee, Alabama

Tuskegee Airmen, Inc. (55 chapters nationwide)

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