Sewickley Well Represented Among Tuskegee Airmen, Historian Says
To honor Sewickley organizations and residents who have helped to create a local memorial honoring Tuskegee Airmen, Regis Bobonis gave a "thank you" lecture at the Sewickley Public Library.
Sewickley will be the site of a monument to honor Western Pennsylvanians who served with the Tuskegee Airmen because it was the home of eight airmen and a midpoint between the homes of others, a local historian said Wednesday.
"You might wonder why the monument is being built in Sewickley [because] only eight of hundreds of Tuskegee Airmen were from here," Regis Bobonis said during a lecture at the Sewickley Public Library.
"However, Sewickley is a geographic midpoint in Western Pennsylvania, thus representing the 85 men in the area who served as Tuskegee Airmen," he said.
Residents do have some "bragging rights in Sewickley because of the men who served from such a small town," added Bobonis, who is chairman of the Daniel B. Matthews Historical Society.
In his lecture, Bobonis covered the history of the Tuskegee Airmen and how he came to discover that Sewickley had once been home to eight members of the unit of black fighter pilots known for valor and for helping to integrate the formerly segregated U.S. armed forces during World War II.
The historical society presented the lecture to honor residents of Sewickley who have supported efforts to build and raise funds for a monument honoring the airmen. The memorial is to be built at Sewickley Cemetery.
Bobonis, 85, is a retired journalist who later became a historian and joined the historical society to learn more about local African-American history. Through his research, he said he and other members of the historical society learned that several of the first African-American military pilots to join the U.S. Army Air Corps once lived in Sewickley.
These pilots trained at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama and served from 1941 until 1949. Bobonis shared details of the airmen's combat records, noting their great contribution to the war effort.
They fought in more than 1,500 combat missions, resulting in 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses and eight Purple Hearts being awarded to individual airmen. Many of the men achieved other accomplishments before and after the war, Bobonis noted.
"Despite the fact that some of the Tuskegee Airmen received high honors during the war, many of them really excelled after the fact," he said.
Among them was former pilot Richard Dowdy Jr., who at age 42 attended Yale Law School, Bobonis said. Dowdy later met David Rockefeller, who asked Dowdy to join his personal staff, Bobonis said.
While in the military and for years after, the Tuskegee Airmen served under the separate-but-equal doctrine, which made all aspects of life difficult, he added.
"Things weren't easy for them here or overseas," he said.
Even the commanding officer of the group, Col. B.O. Davis Jr. received the silent treatment outside the classroom while he attended West Point.
"Davis almost didn't pass the physical examination, even after he was already appointed as commanding officer," said Bobonis. "It wasn't until word trickled down that he had been appointed that the doctors let him pass the exam."
The challenges the airmen faced made their achievements that much more noteworthy, Bobonis said. That they were able to become military pilots after years of being told they would never have that opportunity was an accomplishment in itself, he said.
"These men had no hope of ever flying as kids," Bobonis said, "so when the opportunity came, they jumped on it."
After sharing several other success stories of former Tuskegee Airmen, Bobonis left the audience with a few words about the monument, for which planners had a groundbreaking ceremony in November. Construction will begin in early March and is expected to be completed later in the year.