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Legendary Tuskegee pilot addresses base Airmen

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  • By Tech. Sgt. Kevin Wallace
  • 436th AW Public Affairs
In 1943 with mounds of prejudice piled before him, a young black man from Arkansas cut through all the ignorant, insolent words and abuse thrown at him to join the ranks of an elite all-black flying unit - the Tuskegee Airman.

The young pilot's accomplishments did not stop there. Granville Coggs continued to aim for the sky and break through racial barriers in the civilian sector.

After a tour in World War II, he graduated from Harvard Medical School in 1953. In 1959, he was the first black physician at the Kaiser Foundation Hospital in San Francisco. Among his numerous contributions to society, he was also a college professor and won multiple gold medals in the Senior Olympics.

Now that young pilot is 82-years-old and still works as a radiologist at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio.

He honored Dover Air Force Base by speaking at the African-American Heritage Observance at The Landings Club Feb. 28 to a crowd of nearly 300 Dover Airmen and guests.

The observance started with the 512th Musical Ensemble singing the National Anthem and moved into a step demonstration by the Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity from Delaware State University. Chief Master Sgt. Larence Kirby, 436th Medical Group superintendent, and Airman 1st Class Deondra Braden, 436th Medical Dental Operations Squadron mental health technician, served as the masters of ceremony for the event.

Award recipients were honored and another step demonstration was performed by the Steppin' Seniors of Dover. The event culminated in an interactive historical slide show narrated by Dr. Coggs

For one Airman, seeing the crowd size was worth all the hard work that committee members invested into preparing for the event. The observation was a culmination of a month-long series of events to educate the base on African-Americans' contributions to society.

"The best part was to hear about the history and listen to Doctor Coggs' speech," said Senior Airman Bobby Davis, 436th Medical Operations Squadron.

"It was overwhelming to shake the hands of someone with his experience and to hear about everything he went through to get where he is today," said Airman Davis.

Doctor Coggs told the crowd about the trials and tribulations he faced in life and his pride at earning his wings as a Tuskegee Airmen, an all-black flying unit who served as bomber escorts in the then segregated U.S. Army Air Corps.

According to Department of Defense records, the Tuskegee Airmen took part in thousands of missions in Europe, North Africa and Sicily. Throughout all the escort operations, not a single bomber was lost to enemy fighter planes.

When World War II ended, Doctor Coggs pursued a college degree.

"In my family, college was not an option, but the next step in life," said Doctor Coggs, whose father was also a doctor, a rarity in those times.

When Doctor Coggs went to medical school, he said it was the first time he was treated as a person, rather than a black person.

Doctor Coggs lived in the same dorm facilities as the white students, something he had never experienced before. The former Airman grew up in a segregated society and was all he knew prior to medical school.

"It was a novel idea, blacks and whites living in the same dormitory. I adjusted to it right away," Doctor Coggs said. "I knew it wasn't right; I just didn't expect anything different. The family I grew up in believed in integration, but that wasn't the way my world was."

Dr. Coggs and the other Airmen who served with him helped pave the way to change the world as we know it in the United States.

Last year, in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol, Doctor Coggs was one of 300 Tuskegee Airmen in attendance when President George W. Bush awarded them the Congressional Gold Medal and saluted them for their service to the nation.

"Next to getting married that was the most impressive ceremony of my life," Doctor Coggs said.

The ceremony was one more victory in a hard-won battle against naysayers who just a half century ago said his race was inferior and he lacked the intelligence to ever succeed.

These days the former Airman experiences many more victories than obstacles. During the observation, Doctor Coggs received overwhelming applause and many attendees approached him with words of thanks or to ask for his autograph.

"It is such a pleasure to be here today, and I am so excited about meeting Doctor Coggs," said Lelia White, an entertainer from the Steppin' Seniors and the commander of the Delaware Disabled American Veterans Auxiliary.

"The Tuskegee Airmen were pioneers and set the groundwork for an integrated Air Force," Ms. White said.

When the Air Force became a distinct service in 1947, the segregation policies were transferred, but the new organization confronted the issue. On July 26, 1948, President Harry S. Truman signed Executive Order 9981, which established an advisory committee to assist the military branches in desegregating their ranks. On May 11, 1949, Air Force Letter 35.3 was published, pushing the issue of integration. Within a year, the Air Force was integrated.

"I am honored to meet one of the original pioneers in this fantastic ceremony," Ms. White said. "The Tuskegee Airmen had a lot of hardship, but they kept the faith."

'Keeping the faith' was a theme expressed frequently during the observance. Although the event conjured different feelings for those in attendance, each audience member saw a man whose life turned into a legacy for others to emulate.

"His speech was a reminder that anything is possible and you should never give up," Airman Davis said.

Master Sgt. Melissa Phillips and Airman 1st Class Shen-Chia Chu, 436th AW Public Affairs, and Andricka Hammonds contributed to this story.