Sometimes nobility can be conveyed even by a movie poster. That's the case with George Lucas' hit new film, Red Tails, directed by Anthony Hemingway. The tagline to this dramatic account of African-American WWII fighter pilots popularly known as the Tuskegee Airmen, proclaims: "Courage Has No Color."
The adventure story arrived in theaters at the appropriate time. February is Black History Month. But I don't need Hollywood to remind me of African-Americans' achievements in WWII. I have my father.
Amos Pierce Jr., now 87, was a 16-year-old living in New Orleans in 1941 when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. He soon found himself swept up in the Twentieth Century's pivotal struggle. Drafted in 1943, my father was assigned to the 24th Infantry Regiment.
In 1943, racial prejudice impeded black Americans' service to their country. Until 1948 the U.S. military was officially segregated from top to bottom. Black enlistees and draftees served under white commanders and were usually assigned only menial tasks - peeling potatoes, swabbing decks, emptying bedpans. In the South, black MPs guarding German POWs were not allowed to sit down in the very restaurants that at times served our enemies. Most white Americans never thought about such injustices. They accepted them as just "the way things are."
But war would ultimately cast my father and the rest of his battalion in a new light. In 1944 these men found themselves in the Pacific, part of the invasion of the Japanese-held island of Saipan. Winning required a brutal, bloody fight. The 24th lost 10 men, but killed or captured 722 of the enemy. In fact, the first Japanese to surrender at Saipan capitulated to Dad and his fellow African-American soldiers.
For his valor and bravery my father earned the World War II Victory Medal, among other commendations. But when he returned home he never received his medals. Never received an official "thank you."
He went to an Army office to inquire about his medals. A white desk clerk ignored him and sent him on his way. This wasn't surprising. African-American warriors were routinely denied the recognition white Americans received. Black servicemen found themselves fighting for a double victory -- the first against the enemy overseas and the second against racism at home.
My father finally won his second battle in 2009, after speaking with historians from The National World War II Museum, the New Orleans institution tasked by Congress with teaching about the American experience in the Second World War. He relayed the story of his missing medals. Thanks to the museum's subsequent efforts and those of Louisiana's U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu, I was able to stand alongside my father as he finally received and accepted the nation's long-delayed gratitude. I knew then I would keep working to honor Dad, the Tuskegee Airmen and other African Americans who fought for our freedom.
It's why I'm highlighting the museum's efforts to raise the funds to restore a P-51 Mustang, the same fighter aircraft flown by the Red Tails. The museum will display this restored P-51 in the institution's new US Freedom Pavilion: The Boeing Center, a soaring 96-foot-tall exhibit hall now rising on its six-acre campus. It will be on display in the spring of 2013.
It's why the museum and I urge parents and teachers in February to tell their children the stories of the brave African-American men and women who fought this double victory. Their sacrifice and service on both fronts ensured that all of us, regardless of race or creed, can enjoy the liberties promised by this nation's founders.
It's why I support the efforts of the museum's oral historians, education department and other researchers across the country who interview these veterans to share their incredible stories and preserve their memories for the future. It is a time-sensitive endeavor. The Greatest Generation is leaving us -- as more than 700 pass away each day.
The P-51 Mustang is a powerful symbol to Americans of color who fought for a country that hadn't yet lived up to its ideals. Their determination sent a message that resonates still.
When this national museum displays the iconic P-51, with its tail proudly painted red, my father will be at my side.
Courage has no color--a noble truth, indeed.