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Originally published Sunday, December 14, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Danny Westneat

Tuskegee Airmen's Bravery a steppingstone for Obama

Imagine Bill Holloman's homecoming. How little it must have felt like coming to a home. It was the fall of '45.

Seattle Times staff columnist

Imagine Bill Holloman's homecoming. How little it must have felt like coming to a home.

It was the fall of '45. He was fresh from flying 19 combat missions over Germany, where he'd helped finish off Hitler.

He was 21. Head so full of flyboy dreams he hadn't listened, or maybe hadn't even heard, when his own country said he was too dumb, too clumsy, too inferior to be a fighter pilot.

But when he walked down that gangplank in New York, it didn't matter that he was now a hero. His skin was black.

"I got off the boat and they had these placards posted: 'Whites to the right, Coloreds to the left,'" says Holloman, 84, of Kent. "I saw that and knew I was back in the good ol' U.S. of A."

Last week, that same U.S. of A. invited Holloman and the rest of the surviving "Tuskegee Airmen," the all-black elite World War II pilots, to be special guests when we inaugurate our first black president.

The country's transformation — from owning blacks to segregating them to now putting one in charge — is almost too huge for the blacks in the middle of that history to describe.

"We have come a long, long, long way, baby," Holloman says.

In the Seattle area there are six known living Tuskegee Airmen — the group of 994 pilots and 15,000 ground personnel, all black, who were trained at the segregated Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama during World War II.

I spoke with four of them last week, after they learned Barack Obama wanted them at the inauguration because he believes he stands on their shoulders. They still seem stunned at the country's change and their pivotal role in it.

"I mean we'd walk down the street in the South, as officers in full uniform, and people would push you off the sidewalk and spit on you," recalls George Hickman, 84, a Tuskegee pilot who has lived for 50 years in Seattle's Montlake neighborhood.

"When I was a kid we weren't allowed to make eye contact with white people. So when you ask me whether I thought this country could elect a black man president? No, no I didn't."

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"Never thought I'd live to see it," was how Bill Booker, 86, of Kirkland put it. Booker was a Tuskegee navigator. Now, his health is so poor he says he can't make the trip to Washington, D.C.

The others are Perry Thomas, 85, of Seattle's Leschi neighborhood; Edward Drummond, 82, of Lakewood, Pierce County; and George Miller, 82, also of Lakewood.

Holloman, who became the Air Force's first black helicopter pilot in the 1950s, amazingly flew combat missions in three wars — World War II, the Korean War and Vietnam. He says what made the Tuskegee Airmen special is that they defended a country even when the country didn't want them.

"I always say we were fighting two wars: The war against Hitler and the race war at home," Holloman says. "Both were to preserve democracy."

The Tuskegee Airmen — "they never called us that at the time, it was always 'the colored pilots,' or something worse," Holloman says — were so successful that they led President Truman to desegregate the military in 1948.

From there it is a direct line to the civil-rights movement, the end of Jim Crow and the broader acceptance of blacks as leaders. Several Tuskegee Airmen mentioned how path breaking it was when Seattle elected a black mayor, Norm Rice, in the 1980s.

"Obama is right that he's on our shoulders," said Thomas, for 40 years an electrical engineer at Boeing. "Ours and hundreds of thousands of others."

Hickman said all the protests and movements might not have been as important as blacks simply persisting. Doing what anybody else could do. Teaching, doctoring, flying warplanes.

"So many of us were just gung-ho to do well at our jobs," he said. "One step at a time, that's what paved the way for Obama."

Both Hickman's grandmother and grandfather were slaves, freed around the Civil War. I asked him where the grandson of slaves in the era of Jim Crow got the notion he could become a fighter pilot.

"I had the mind of an 18-year-old," he laughed.

"We were hellbent to fly," said Holloman, who is Hickman's cousin. "Nothing anyone could do to stop us. We thought we were God's gifts to the Air Force!"

They turned out to be gifts all right. What most impresses me is: How did they avoid getting bitter?

Holloman's great-grandmother was a slave. His grandmother was raised on a plantation. That's the kind of historical weight that can drag down a life. So I was struck at the end of our talk when he said having Obama as president means "we can finally put all that to bed."

Racism is hardly over, I said.

"I know, but that's my statement," he insisted. "What the American people said in this election is that race is something of the past. They said Martin Luther King's dream has come true. We should listen to them."

Not before we say to the ones who made it possible to dream: Thanks.

Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him

at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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About Danny Westneat
Danny Westneat takes an opinionated look at the Puget Sound region's news, people and politics. Send tips or comments to dwestneat@seattletimes.com. His column runs Wednesday and Sunday.
dwestneat@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2086

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